Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill delivered the 15th annual State of the Tribes Address before the State Legislature April 9 in the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison. Speaking on behalf of the state’s 11 tribal Nations, Hill addressed numerous issues affecting Indian Country today.
While speaking for approximately 45 minutes, Hill addressed topics such as the positive impacts of Tribal Nations on Wisconsin’s economy, the economic growth of Tribal Nations, unemployment rates, and diversity and teamwork.
Hill noted the Oneida Nation is the third largest employer in the local area, and on the state level unemployment rates for Native Americans has dropped from 17 percent in 1990 to just under 10 percent today. While praising the state’s Tribal Nations for their positive strides made with regards to employment, Hill said there is still much work to do. “Our unemployment rate is double when compared to the rest of Wisconsin residents,” Hill said. “Our poverty rate is almost three times that of all Wisconsin families.”
Hill also called on the 31 Wisconsin public schools still using Indian mascots, logos, and nicknames to end their use of these inflammatory practices. “The use of Indian images stereotypes and dehumanizes our cultures and Native American people for the sake of entertainment,” Hill said. “It encourages racist and vulgar behavior in the name of school spirit which is both socially and academically detrimental to all children. Teach respect, not racism. Indians are people, not mascots.”
Tribal collaborations and their responsibilities to Mother Earth were discussed as was food sovereignty, agricultural sustainability, and the protection of wildlife. “When fulfilling our responsibility to the land, the plants, and the animal life, we make our Mother Earth healthier, greener, and more beautiful,” Hill said. “Environmental protection has always been a cornerstone of Native life and culture. Just last year several Nations stood in solidarity with the Menominee Nation in their lawsuit opposing the proposed Back Forty Mine. The environmental risks to the Menominee River, adjacent land, and the Great Lakes from the inevitable acid mine drainage is unacceptable.
“As Native Nations we are dedicated to food sovereignty and in restoring the abundance of our traditional foods,” Hill said. “Agricultural sustainability stems from thousands of years of growing and sustaining our natural foods. Wisconsin Tribal Nations are fortunate to have preserved heirloom seeds, wild rice beds, fish, fowl, and game.”
Hill also addressed health disparities in Indian Country and the underfunding of much-needed health care programs and the resultant reliance on third-party funding sources such as Medicaid. “Data collected by the National Indian Health Board demonstrates Indians in Wisconsin have nearly twice the rate of health disparities than all other races,” Hill said. “For example the diabetes rate is two, sometimes three, times higher in tribal communities. The substance abuse rates are six to eight times higher than the general population.
“Because of Indian Health Service funding shortfalls, the Indian health system has to rely on other funding sources to keep our tribal clinics open,” Hill said. “By far the most important source of third-party revenue is Medicaid. Wisconsin Tribal Nations continue to strongly support full Medicaid expansion in the state. We would like to continue working with the state to increase health coverage and lower costs through the Medicaid program. Wisconsin Tribal Nations and the State of Wisconsin have a unique opportunity to do just that.”
Substance abuse and the opioid crisis were discussed along with steps being taken to combat these issues. “The opioid epidemic represents one of the greatest public health threats in the modern era having devastating impacts on all communities and families throughout the entire country,” Hill said. “Substance abuse is often an attempt to avoid painful feelings through self-medication so it should be no surprise the opioid crisis has roots in historical and intergenerational trauma for our community.
“The opioid epidemic is a national crisis and our Tribal Nations can’t combat this alone,” Hill said. “We are grateful the State of Wisconsin, along with our federal and local partners, are assisting in current efforts to address this crisis. I call on this team of Tribal Nations and the State of Wisconsin to continue the fight against addiction together by assessing our shared programs and data, aggressively procuring federal dollars and allocating them wisely.”
Hill addressed the need for more adequate and affordable housing. “Housing is a constant issue in our tribal communities,” Hill said. “In many of our tribal communities it doesn’t include sleeping the streets but means drifting from house to house or overcrowding a familial home. Our communities need additional resources for homelessness and underhoused individuals.
“While I acknowledge the majority of housing resources are provided through the federal government, there is work to be done in Wisconsin through grant offerings and other incentives to make housing development more affordable,” Hill said. “I am asking the state help us to provide homes for our families.”
The high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women throughout Indian Country and the threat to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) were the final topics of Hill’s address. “According to research funded by the Department of Justice, Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at an extremely high rate – in some communities more than 10 times the national average,” Hill said. “We must do better. We must take care of our life-givers. A threat against our women is a threat against our children and future generations.
“The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA group is working to combat violence against Indigenous women by educating women of the threats they face and teaching them self-defense,” Hill said. “I call on the State of Wisconsin to work with our Tribal Communities to do better for our life-givers.
“The Indian Child Welfare Act, commonly known as ICWA, is currently under attack in the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th circuit where it is alleged to be unconstitutional,” Hill said. “An unconstitutional decision could have sweeping consequences over all Indian law that governs the relationship between Tribal Nations and the federal government.”
Following Hill’s speech, which received a rousing standing ovation from the entire State Legislature, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed Executive Order #18 affirming intergovernmental relationships among the State of Wisconsin and Tribal Nations located within the state. The governor’s executive order reaffirms the sovereign authority Tribal Nations have over their members and territory in the state of Wisconsin.
The executive order also directs each state agency to consult tribal governments on matters that may indirectly impact tribal nations and develop an updated consultation policy that ensures the state government workforce is educated on Tribal Nations and sovereignty. It will also strengthen day-to-day working relationships between tribal and state government agencies and provide for at least annual consultation meetings with tribal and state leaders. It also calls for the identification of at least one agency staff member to serve as a liaison between the agency and the Tribal Nations.
“Close collaboration between state and tribal government is essential for every Wisconsinite who is a member of one of the 11 federally-recognized Tribal Nations,” Evers wrote in a recent press release. “State policies can impact Tribal Nations both directly and indirectly and the state can only benefit from productive and sustainable policy implementation.”