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Tribal Voices Matter: Reflections on the State of the Tribes Address

Apr 19, 2019

Through a partnership between MEA and Equal Justice Works, 2017 Vermont Law School Graduate Jacklyn Bryan has been working with Tribal Nations to hold Wisconsin accountable to its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act. Jacklyn is originally from California and is a member of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley. In addition to serving as a tribal ally, Jacklyn has helped MEA staff, law clerks and interns better understand the role of diversity and inclusivity in Wisconsin environmental policy making.

Last week, Jacklyn invited MEA legislative policy interns, Shelby Weidenkopf and Abi Sann, to attend the annual State of the Tribes address (SOTA) with her. The evening before the address, all three attended the 4th Annual SOTA Reception and Indigenous Girls Rock Camp Fundraiser, along with Jacklyn’s young daughter. This annual event includes live music, collaborative art projects and plenty of networking opportunities. A painting that Abi and Jacklyn created was auctioned off during the event, with proceeds going to support the Indigenous Girls Rock Camp and Spirit of a Woman. The work of both of these organizations is incredibly important at a time when many native communities continue to grapple with an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.


Having fun and supporting a good cause at the Indigenous Girls Rock Fundraiser


The following day, a group of MEA staff and interns headed up to the State Capitol to attend the State of the Tribes address delivered by Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill. In addition to members of the State Legislature, Governor Evers, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes and several state agency leaders were in attendance. Jacklyn noted the importance of their participation, emphasizing the significance of active efforts to listen, learn, and show respect to tribal leadership:

“When our state officials listen to a leader who represents the voices of a consistently and publicly ignored minority group, they show the public that this group should be respected.”

Chairman Hill echoed Jacklyn's sentiments in his comments on the effects of racism on Native children. Present day racism adds yet another burden to the cumulative intergenerational trauma many children already endure--from forced removal of land and cultural identity, to toxic environmental threats to sacred tribal resources.

While acknowledging the renewed emphasis on improving water quality this legislative session, Chairman Hill emphasized that the State must take seriously its obligation to protect tribal water resources. Ongoing public health crises and threats to tribal food sovereignty violate federal treaties, he pointed out. These treaties require the government to care for the health and well-being of Native people. Ultimately, state and tribal governments are connected in their missions to enhance the quality of life for all people, so it is essential, Chairman Hill reasoned, that the State be more proactive in bringing tribes to the decision-making table.

Reflecting on the address afterward, Jacklyn concurred with Chairman Hill, noting that tribes often know much more about environmental concerns and other issues in their communities because they utilize their natural resources every day and have managed their lands much longer than anyone else. For this reason, it is critical that tribal perspectives be heard and respected.

                     Jacklyn Bryan and 2018 MEA law clerk, Rob Lundberg

Jacklyn & former MEA Law Clerk Rob Lundberg at the State of the Tribes Address


The entire State of the Tribes Address can be viewed online.

Visit MEA’s website to learn more about our legislative policy internship and our law clerk programs. 

Interested in becoming a sponsor of one of our student programs? Please contact Peg Sheaffer at (608) 251-5047 x 3 or psheaffer@midwestadvocates.org.