Native American communities in Wisconsin stress the importance of environmental injustice and how local communities can help

Credit: Dave Hoefler from Unsplash. Aerial image of Popular Creek in New Berlin, Wisconsin.

By Morgan Bluma 

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Native American communities in Wisconsin are struggling to protect their lands and water against the federal government and Trump administration due to lack of resources, partnerships and community awareness about Native Americans.

            Two Native American tribes in Wisconsin filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their rollbacks on Obama-era water protections on June 22. Other Native American tribes across the country have joined in the complaint against President Trump’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule including environmental advocate groups. 

            Executive Director of the nonprofit conservation organization Landmark Conservancy Lindsey Ketchel works with many Native American communities in Wisconsin. Ketchel said this is the kind of support that Native American communities appreciate when advocacy groups are in the background, listening to what these communities need. Landmark Conservancy’s core work is focused on land protection and building resiliency while protecting biodiversity areas that have resiliency tendencies.

            “We love science,” Ketchel said in a phone interview, “but we love Native perspective and all that they bring and offer as a local partner.”

            Ketchel said many organizations only involve a Native American community for tokenism. Ketchel said it is important for organizations and environment communities to work with Native American communities because it is real, authentic and healing.

            University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor Holly Denning from the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, who also teaches the Race and Ethnic Studies Program, said she wanted to learn more ways to help Native American communities. She said the Wisconsin community and the nation could help move toward green energy that would support Native American communities in their environmental efforts.

            Denning said she became interested in recent conflicts happening within Native American communities because of the lack of education on Native American studies in Wisconsin. 

            “I’m always amazed at how few people know anything about Native Americans,” Denning said in an interview on Zoom. “There’s even people who just thought they were gone.”

            The Reclaiming Native Truth, an organization focused on fostering cultural, social and policy change by empowering Native Americans, conducted a research campaign between 2016 and 2018 to increase understanding of the dominant narrative about Native Americans in the United States. The survey found that 40 percent of respondents did not think Native Americans still exist. 

            Managing Editor and CEO of Indian Country Communications, an independent, Native-owned, reservation-based business, Paul DeMain also recognized this gap between Native American communities and education. DeMain said many people were not taught in school about tribal governments and therefore are unaware of the role they play in the United States. 

            “We were out of sight and out of mind for a long time,” DeMain said in a phone interview.  

            DeMain was the former Indian Affairs Policy Advisor under Gov. Anthony S. Earl from 1982 to 1986. He said the administration was progressive and diverse but also stressful when trying to work with the Republican party.   

            “If you oppose something that they wanted, you were the enemy,” DeMain said, “and they did everything they could to trash you and despise you rather than to try and figure out if there’s middle ground in the centrist area of legislative actions.”  

            Ketchel said Trump has done a lot of damage to the environmental efforts that many people are not aware of because there is a lack of media coverage. She also said Biden makes big promises and plans to stop environmental damage when little resources are coming from the federal government. 

            “I want less big, huge plans, and I want more damn resources driven into these communities who are ready to act now in a proactive way,” Ketchel said. 

            DeMain said there needs to be a cooperative effort by both the Native American communities and the non-Native American communities to stop environmental waste and pollution in legislation. DeMain said we need to unit together on common grounds that we all need clean water, and we all want a future for our generations. He said there needs to be help from outside organizations and communities to get things done whether it is political, social justice and environmental.

            “If Republicans spent a quarter of the time defending the Constitutional right to vote like they do with the second amendment,” DeMain said, “it would be easier to vote.”

            According to FairVote, about 60 percent of the eligible voting population voted during the presidential election in recent years. That means about 40 percent are not voting, which is what concerns DeMain. 

            “It’s voters’ suppression,” DeMain said. “It’s gerrymandering, and a lot of people are simply tired of it and won’t participate in the political process.”

             Ketchel said advocacy work is exhausting because the politics involved is a constant game. She said if you manage to get something passed one year, a few years later the new legislation vetoes it. But she said she loves land protection because it is more permanent.

The EPA has approved federally recognized Native American tribes for Treatment as a State, which allows them to manage certain environmental programs and function of their own lands. But DeMain said there needs to be more coordination between Native American tribal governments and state and federal governments. 

            Although Ketchel is an optimistic person, she is becoming weary.

            “Will we have the will to really change what’s happening? God, I hope so.”

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