By Morgan Bluma
WAUKESHA, Wis. – 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. Other Native American tribes across the country have joined in the complaint against President Trump’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule, including environmental advocate groups.
Congress finalized the Navigable Waters Protection Rule on June 22 and will be implemented by the EPA in Wisconsin. The EPA is an independent executive agency that handles environmental protection matters. The Navigable Water Protection Rule changed the federal regulations that define “navigable waters,” which will reduce the protection of wetlands and streams. Some of the EPA science advisors said the changes are not adequately based on science. Since the 2016 election, the Trump administration has reversed 68 environmental rules that weaken environmental protection.
Maggie Woodin said she was “not surprised” that people were challenging Trump’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule even though her office does not engage in legal matters. Woodin is the senior legislative assistant to Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin’s 8th congressional district. She said the Trump administration’s rollbacks on environmental policies offer a balance between protecting the environment and the effects it has on communities.
“I think that there is certainly a balance between certain rollbacks of regulations and how those affect communities with businesses and jobs and all of that,” Woodin said in an interview on Zoom, “with also the counter of making sure that our natural resources, air, water, land, etc., are protected.”
Although the EPA has approved federally recognized Native American tribes for treatment as a state (TAS), which allows them to manage certain environmental programs and functions of their own lands, Paul DeMain said there still needs to be more coordination between Native American tribal governments and state and federal governments.
“So, part of it is tribes are definitely exercising their jurisdiction,” DeMain said in a phone interview, “but it’s not like the non-Indian community should say, ‘well, we don’t have to worry about an open pit mine in Northern Wisconsin because the tribes are here.’ That’s not fair for them. It’s got to be a cooperative effort.”
DeMain is of Ojibwe descent and a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. He is the managing editor and CEO of Indian Country Communications, an independent, Native-owned, reservation-based business. DeMain was the former Indian Affairs Policy Advisor under Gov. Anthony S. Earl from 1982 to 1986. He said Earl’s administration was progressive and diverse.
“I thought it was a progressive administration,” DeMain said. “It laid the groundwork for future state governments to recognize tribal government.”
DeMain said the Trump administration has handled opposing views to environmental rules poorly because Trump continues to degrade people rather than trying to figure out some common ground.
“They go a long way to disparage these groups,” DeMain said. “The use of the word Pocahontas by Trump, saying that Indians don’t look like Indians. Well, it’s a sick thing.”
Trump has used the term Pocahontas against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who said she has Native American heritage, at an event honoring Native American veterans. In 1993, Trump testified before a House subcommittee that certain tribes don’t “look Indian.”
Holly Denning said that particular policies put forth by the Trump administration has her worried about the environment.
“I think there’s a lot of rollbacks that’s been happening of positive protections that were put in place a long time ago,” Denning said in an interview on Zoom.
Denning is a professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, who also teaches the Race and Ethnic Studies Program, at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Lindsey Ketchel said Trump has done a lot of damage to environmental efforts through his rollbacks and suggests what it would mean if he is reelected.
“If Trump is reelected, the damage to the environmental efforts are going to continue to be significant,” Ketchel said in a phone interview.
Biden, on the other hand, makes big promises and plans to stop environmental damage when little resources are coming from the federal government, she said.
“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.
Ketchel is the executive director of the nonprofit conservation organization Landmark Conservancy which focuses on land protection and building resiliency while protecting biodiversity in northwestern Wisconsin.
Ketchel works with many Native American communities in Wisconsin. She said Native American communities appreciate when advocacy groups are in the background, listening to what these communities need and supporting their concerns.
“Even though I’m not buying land,” Ketchel said, “having their back mattered. And they very much appreciated it.”
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.
“A lot of times, that’s why Native communities can’t stand it, they feel like it’s tokenism, Ketchel said, “you just invite me so you can listen to me and check a box.”
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.
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.”
Woodin said non-Native individuals might not understand environmental policies as it relates to Native communities due to the lack of knowledge about Native communities’ histories, beliefs and origins.
“You have all of these tribal stories surrounding the establishment of the tribe that are rooted in nature and natural resources that then provides an additional tie to the environment that a non-tribal individual might not have,” Woodin said.
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.