Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians President Shannon Holsey took aim at proposals to curb the teaching of racism in America’s history and to make voting more difficult in the annual State of the Tribes address to the Wisconsin state legislature.
In the nearly hour-long speech, Holsey also addressed the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid addiction, Native American mascots in interscholastic sports and other issues.
“The treatment of Native American people in American history is really not an easy one to tell, it’s not easy to hear, and it’s even harder to acknowledge,” she said. “ …but there must be a willingness to teach a balanced account of US history that incorporates accurate, comprehensive and relevant curriculum and Native American history and culture. A proposed Wisconsin bill would prohibit teaching curriculum that brings greater depth in understanding to long misrepresented history of indigenous culture, for fear of hurting students’ feelings. Hence it is our view and response as tribal nations that perhaps what is needed is not critical theory (but) more critical thinking.”
Last fall the Legislature passed a bill, later vetoed by Governor Tony Evers, that critics say would limit how schools and teachers could discuss racism in America’s past.
Holsey also addressed ongoing efforts to reduce early voting, voting by mail and other accommodations, which voting rights advocates say would disproportionately affect voting in marginalized communities.
“Suppressing the right to vote purports to be neutral. However, in many instances, it undermines the basic right to participate in our democracy,” she said, noting that Indigenous people didn’t even have citizenship or the right to vote in American elections until 1924. “The loss of the right to vote is the loss of the voice in the democratic process. We should all do more to ensure that all Americans, including Native Americans, can exercise this right easily without undue hardship.”
Halsey opened the speech acknowledging the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Indigenous communities are no longer content to wait for others to make decisions for us,” she said. “These days are gone and given the tribes leadership and forward more movement during the pandemic to protect not only our communities, but the communities around us, I believe there were lessons to be learned from the Tribes’ responses to the pandemic. … Many of the (American) deaths were unnecessary due to the politicalization and failure to take seriously the worst global public health crisis in over a century. But Tribal nations chose a different path from the beginning. Tribal leaders had a clear understanding of what’s happening and were in a desperate race to protect our communities because we have a historic experience with epidemics and deadly pathogens. … In our small tribal communities, the loss of any citizen is too high of a price and losing a single elder is like …. a library burning down.”
Holsey echoed a major theme of last year’s State of the Tribes Address, when Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa President John D. Johnson focused on opioid addiction among Indigenous communities. Holsey alluded to a proposed treatment center that would be shared among Indigenous nations.
“We also have to look to the challenges that require us to look more deeply and address the perils of addiction,” Holsey said. “One such initiative aligns with the governor’s commitment to combat the opioid addiction that exists and to build upon the aggressive measures that you already have taken in combating the opioid crisis in Wisconsin. This is something that all 11 (federally recognized) tribes prioritized as important – building a culturally centric, adolescent wellness treatment center. And we are so close and we hope that through your partnership, we will bring this critically needed resource to healing our youth.”
Holsey also addressed the ongoing effort to eliminate the use of Native American mascots in high school sports.
“Far too long, Indigenous people have faced discrimination, disrespect, violence, oppressive use of words and imagery. And as long as we can be treated badly in this very public way, Native people will continue to be persistently mistreated and our collective and individual rights will be at risk,” she said. “To do nothing to change these hurtful practices and to allow its continuation in any context, is a complicit perpetuation of derogatory, bigoted and harmful practices. And it is nothing short of literal violence toward native American people, words and images do matter.”
More than 30 Wisconsin high schools use Native American names or imagery in their sport team mascots. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards rejected a measure calling for the end of that practice in 2020.
“It is said that if you are not hungry for justice, equity, inclu, and inclusion, it is perhaps because you are too full of privilege. And quite honestly, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving,” Holsey said to conclude the address.
An Indigenous leader has delivered the State of the Tribes address every year since 2005. This was Holsey’s second time delivering the address; she previously gave the address in 2017.
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