Working together on environmental issues was a one of several strong themes in the recent State of the Tribes address given to the Wisconsin Legislature by Lac Courte Oreilles Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians chairman Mic Isham.
In a speech that highlighted tribal members’ accomplishments—ranging from basketball scholarships to law-school degrees—and busted open myths that still seem to pervade about Native life, tax obligations, voting records and housing, Isham moved on to talk about the befuddling nature of state and tribal environmental relations.
“I’ve mentioned several areas in which we have good partnerships or relationships, but yes there are areas in which we do not always agree,” Isham said. “The areas of natural resource management and environmental protection are rife with differences. And, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. These are areas where we have much in common and should be working hand-in-hand. Pristine water, clean air, lush woodlands, healthy and clean fish and wildlife populations benefit us all. Our state’s overall public health and well-being, as well as a sustainable economy are dependent on clean air, clean water and clean land.”
Tribal nations, despite cultural disparities, “share the same reverence for the Earth,” he pointed out. “We consider her our Mother who provides us with our sustenance and nurtures our spirit. We understand that every one of us is an integral part of the environment. We know that everything around us can survive without us human beings, but that we humans cannot survive without the gifts that Mother Earth provides. What is detrimental to the environment is detrimental to us.”
This holds for the people of Wisconsin too, he said, even though agendas for, say, fishing might differ. While his tribe fishes for subsistence and the state manages fish for sport, the end result is the same, and any quarrel over method and intent distracts from the real issue of keeping habitat viable.
“I find this debate to be unproductive,” Isham said. “It preys upon longstanding myths that somehow a dead fish at the end of a spear is different than a dead fish at the end of rod.”
More important are the issues of “declining fish and wildlife populations, loss of spawning grounds, declining wild rice beds, invasive species, a changing climate and extreme weather events, and the toxic effects of pollutants,” he noted.
“We—the tribes and state together—must recognize that it is no longer a matter of who gets to harvest which fish,” Isham said. “It is a much more urgent matter to make sure that fish remain to be harvested. It is incumbent upon us to protect rather than destroy habitat and to control pollution so that fish are safe to eat.”
The issue of “who defines acceptable levels of pollution” is especially sensitive for tribes, he said, because of the higher levels of fish and other contamination-prone foods that tribal members tend to consume, for both cultural and nutritional reasons. A diet predominating in fish, deer, wild rice and berries carries the risk of being tainted by pollution. Similar issues have surfaced for tribes elsewhere, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where Washington State is modifying the allowable levels of various harmful substances in waterways to bring that in line with actual fish consumption.
“We must stop destroying habitat and the polluting our water and air,” Isham said. “We must preserve what we have and restore what we have lost. We are witnessing the consequences of our failure to act when we have the science and should have the wisdom to know better.”
He cited toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie and a “dead zone” in Green Bay as prime examples of things that could be prevented with proper application of available knowledge. The proposed Penokee mine, unfettered shoreline development, inadequate control over pollutants from cranberry populations and an alarming increase in cases of chronic wasting disease among farmed deer, especially given a series of escapes that put the wild population at risk, are other issues concerning tribes.
“Let’s address these matters together to protect Mother Earth for everyone’s well-being today and for generations to come,” Isham said. “The tribes would rather fight [alongside] than battle against the state when it comes to protecting fish, maintaining clean air, maintaining clean water, and supporting fully functioning ecosystems and wetlands that provide healthy natural resources for us all. We must remember what we have in common and how we can overcome differences that some so vigorously try to exploit in an effort to divide us. It is better to seize upon similarities and tackle issues together rather than to be separated and divided by differences, actual or perceived.”
Isham also brought up several examples of collaboration that he said demonstrated the ability of tribes and state to work together. Those included a walleye initiative and a partnership between tribes and property owners to rehabilitate the wild rice on Clam Lake.
“Let these examples remind us not to waste money on attorneys settling our differences in court,” Isham reminded the state politicians. “Let’s find ways to work together to support healthy communities that have a sustainable relationship with all of the gifts that Mother Earth provides for us.”