From mining, gaming, hunting and the use of Indian mascots, there’s been no shortage of divisive issues between 11 tribal nations and the state of Wisconsin over the past year.
On Thursday, Menominee Nation Chairman Craig Corn, whose tribe is at the center of a push to build an $800 million off-reservation Hard Rock Casino in Kenosha over the objections of two other tribes, will deliver the annual State of the Tribes address to members of the state Legislature.
Last year, Lac Courte Oreilles Chairman Gordon Thayer upset some lawmakers when he crossed what seems to be an unspoken line of State of the Tribes etiquette by criticizing some of the actions by the overwhelmingly white Legislature, accusing officials of spreading inflammatory political propaganda about spear fishing.
Rep. Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, who is part Native American, stormed out during the speech. Kramer has said he is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.
It seems Corn is going to take a politically neutral approach to the event a year later.
“This event spotlights the common interests that we as tribal leaders have with members of the Assembly and Senate,” said Corn in a statement. “I look forward to the opportunity to address the Legislature and to assist the tribes in strengthening the ties that are such a model to other states.”
The statement was sent out in conjunction with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who said he looked forward to the State of the Tribes address as it is “essential that we continue to learn more about the issues important to Wisconsin’s tribes.”
Michael Beightol, a local spokesman for the Menominee and Hard Rock Casino, said Corn won’t be focusing on the effort by the Menomonie to build the casino.
“This is an opportunity provided by the Legislature to talk about Indian matters in a broad way,” Beightol said. “It’s not an opportunity to talk about one tribe’s issues.”
If Corn does address the casino, it would be timely.
Last week, state Department of Administration Sec. Mike Huebsch indicated Gov. Scott Walker may not make a decision on whether or not the casino can be built until after the November election. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the Menominee Casino plan Aug. 23.
That gave Walker one full year to make his decision, but the bureau also provides for a one-time, six-month extension.
In addition to the state’s ever-expanding time line for when it will issue a decision on the casino, the six northern tribes are concerned about possible construction of an iron-ore mine in the environmentally sensitive Penokee Hills in Ashland and Iron countries.
Walker also signed a bill in November making it easier for public schools to continue using Indian mascots and logos. Several opponents have called the bill racist.
The state’s second wolf hunting season recently ended. The hunt is another point of contention between the tribes, which view the wolf as a sacred animal that should not be hunted, and the state.
And while tribal leaders sound like they won’t go negative on the rifts between themselves and the states, others are.
"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, in an Associated Press article.
Kimberlee Wright is the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. The organization is working closely with the northern tribes to monitor the progress of the iron-ore mine and believes the state’s new mining law rolled back environmental regulations.
It will likely file a lawsuit if the state issues a permit to mining company, Gogebic Taconite.
Wright said it seems “out of line” that the mining industry has an open door to the state’s resources and the sovereign nations living near the project don’t and were not consulted about it.
“If we were working with Minnesota on something, my guess is the governor of Minnesota wouldn’t be ignored,” Wright said.