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Our existence is our resistance: Jackie Velasquez State of the Tribes reportback

Feb 15, 2018

I’ve had the privilege of meeting Menominee Nation Legislator Gary Besaw a number of times prior to seeing him deliver the 2018 State of the Tribes Address. Each time I’ve interacted with him I’ve been impressed by his humor, intelligence and leadership.

Those traits showed thru as Legislator Besaw addressed a packed State Capital Gallery on Tuesday. Like many people in the Gallery watching, my attendance was a family affair. As a California native, I had never seen such an address and felt it was an important moment to be present for, so I took my nine-year-old daughter with me and convinced my husband to join us at our first State of the Tribes gathering. Like every tribal event I’ve attended in Wisconsin, I knew there would be drumming, prayer and resilience in the room that my family needed to breathe in. This was exactly what we got.

Prior to the Address, there was an Honor Walk that circled the building. As our family walked we discussed the tribal flags, the symbolism in each eagle feather staff, our place as native people in this world, and our obligations to our Mother Earth. The drum filled our hearts and gave us a connection we’d been missing since relocating from California.

But it wasn’t until the walk moved into the Capital that I realized the command of our presence. The power of the drum shook and echoed throughout the halls of Wisconsin’s State Capital, a sound no one in the building could claim to have missed. The traditional words of the singers resonated into our souls, creating a feeling of completeness and resilience. I left that moment thinking, now this was the way to start a speech!

Legislator Besaw’s address reflected his background as an educator. He began with some cultural perspectives that he continued to weave throughout his hour-long speech that educated many in the packed room about the similarities and differences Native people have from other citizens.

Native and non-Native people alike are all living together in Wisconsin. We share the same roads and schools and local economies. But what sets Native people apart is our Tribal sovereignty status, our cultural connections, and our deeply held responsibilities to our natural environment.

This connection was made clear from traditional stories of the Menominee Nation that outline the cultural responsibilities of Menominee and other Native people to speak for those who cannot. We must speak for the yet-to-be-born two legged, four legged, winged and finned creatures of this world.

When Legislator Besaw spoke to the tribal youth in the room, the future leaders of our communities, he asked all the youth present who are in or have been part of a traditional language emersion program to stand. Like many, Legislator Besaw sees the connection between cultural preservation and traditional language. He started the speech with a story about the Menominee language origins of the States’ namesake in its modern form, Wisconsin, a fact too few know.

Erasing the roots of the state’s name is just one part of the depth of the invisibility of Native people in Wisconsin.  He spoke about how many Wisconsinites view Native people as having once existed, in the past tense, while not realizing that we are in fact still here. Native-themed school mascots still negatively impact our youth. Teaching history lessons of past existence in public schools underscores our need for tribal schools that teach the next generation how to preserve their history while living their culture today.

Legislature Besaw also expressed the sincere feeling of tribal inclusion in working with a few legislators and politicians on issues that have impacts on Tribal communities. He expressed appreciation about the continued implementation of Executive Order 39 which governs consultation with Tribes and the progress between some Wisconsin agencies and the tribes they serve. More, that there has been support from the state to assist Native people who are struggling with poisons that are destroying many of our communities as Wisconsin faces an opioid addiction crisis.

But he called on the room to do more to protect the natural world. He asked the State to do more to protect deer from chronic wasting disease, to protect our clean water from the Back Forty Mine, and to start following a new model of consultation: a formal consultation that occurs prior to the occurrence of state action and receives approval from the appropriate Tribal leader before any actions are performed.

Everyone in Wisconsin should attend the State of the Tribes Address. It’s vital to see and hear the strength and resistance of Native communities from those communities themselves. It’s imperative for our youth to see someone they identify with commanding the microphone in the Capital where so often native communities feel disregarded. It is a day when, together, our existence is truly our resistance and by being present, we show Wisconsin that we’re still here.

Like many, I often tell my daughter, “it's a good day to be indigenous.” This time when I said it she shared the feeling.

- Midwest Environmental Advocates Equal Justice Works Fellow Jacklyn Velasquez

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