Wis. tribal leader promises ‘positive’ speech

Wisconsin State Flag
File photo.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin legislators and tribal leaders are talking about collaboration and common ground going into this month’s State of the Tribes address, but deep divides over iron mining, hunting rights and school mascots still lurk under the pleasant rhetoric.

The Lac Courte Oreilles chairman slammed Republican legislators and state officials in last year’s speech, causing one lawmaker to walk out, and the stage could be set for more conflict when Menominee Nation Chairman Craig Corn delivers the address on Feb. 13. Corn has been lobbying Republican Gov. Scott Walker to approve his tribe’s plans for an off-reservation casino in Kenosha despite two other tribes’ opposition.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the relationship between the state and the Indian nations here so tense,” said Patty Loew, a Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa member and a University of Wisconsin-Madison communications professor who specializes in American Indian culture.

Corn and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, issued a statement calling the speech an opportunity to highlight common interests and address problems – and they have plenty of those.

The state’s six Chippewa tribes are still angry over Republican legislation clearing the path for a possible iron mine they fear will pollute water and destroy wild rice beds near the Bad River’s Ashland County reservation. The state’s new wolf also has offended the Chippewa; the bands consider the animal a spiritual brother.

The tribes authorized their hunters to kill an elk a month before the first wolf hunt. Later in 2012, they approved night deer hunting for their members. The DNR has been struggling to reintroduce elk to the state for years and has long prohibited night deer hunting out of safety concerns.

Gordon Thayer, then the Lac Courte Oreilles chairman, laid into Republican legislators and state officials in last year’s speech, accusing them of spreading misinformation about the tribes’ spearfishing goals and their effect on walleye populations. He complained about the mining legislation and criticized Walker for not speaking more about the tribes more in his state of the state address.

Rep. Bill Kramer, a Waukesha Republican, walked out.

Things haven’t gotten much better since.

Walker signed a bill in December making it harder to strip public schools of American Indian mascots. Barbara Munson, an Oneida Indian who leads the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s mascot task force, has called the measure racist.

Meanwhile, the Chippewa have appealed a court order barring night deer hunting. And now the casino is in the mix.

Federal regulators have signed off on the Menominee’s proposal but Walker has the final say on the plan. He has said he wants all of Wisconsin’s tribes to approve the project before he green-lights it – pitting the Menominee against the Ho-Chunk Nation and Forest County Potawatomi, who already run lucrative casinos and oppose more tribal gambling. Walker still hasn’t made a final decision.

Corn said his request to the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council to give this year’s speech wasn’t timed to coincide with the casino push. The 11 tribes rotate speakers, and the Menominee wanted to speak last year but stepped aside for the Lac Courte Oreilles, he said.

Nonetheless, the casino issue will likely hang over the speech. Corn can’t afford to alienate lawmakers, Walker or the Ho-Chunk and the Potawatomi and will have to tread lightly, Loew said.

Potawatomi spokesman George Ermert said the tribe doesn’t have a problem with Corn giving the speech but expects him to focus on the big picture.

“(The speech is) meant to talk about the pressing issues for all the tribes in Wisconsin,” he said. “It’s not meant to be what one specific tribe is dealing with. It’s never been about what one specific tribe wants.”

Corn said he will talk about the economic boost the casino would give his people and the state as well as broad tribal issues. A draft of his talk will be sent to the other tribes for feedback, he said.

“They’re our fellow tribes and we try to help each other and try to pick each other up,” Corn said. “That message won’t change with this address or this casino. We’re going to keep it positive.”

Ho-Chunk President Jon Greendeer, Kramer and other key lawmakers did not return messages requesting comment.

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