Seeking Harmony in State Tribal Relations

Last Sunday, a woman asked if I would make sure United States trade agreements were negotiated in fairness to every Wisconsin worker. She said, “If you can get this done you will be elected every year for life!”

I support fair treatment for Wisconsin workers; but I had to tell her negotiating trade agreements with other countries involves her U.S. Senator - not her State Senator.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in discussions that were as close as any State Senator would come to negotiating with other countries.

I am the newest member of the Legislative Council’s Special Committee on State Tribal Relations. The committee was established by Wisconsin law to maintain a permanent vehicle for resolving issues between Wisconsin and the sovereign tribes that live within Wisconsin’s borders.

As independent nations, the tribes have rights established by treaties long ago. But many modern day problems arise that require action by both the tribes and the state. The State Tribal Relations Committee consists of both Legislators and members of Wisconsin’s tribes appointed by the tribal leaders. The Committee meets on a regular basis to take up issues of concern to the state and the tribes.  I joined senior members of the committee - many of whom have worked on tribal issues for over two decades.

In recent years legislation written by the Committee resolved issues related to adoption and treatment of Indian foster children through the Wisconsin codification of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The relationship between county, city and tribal law enforcement was clarified in the recent passage of a “mutual assistance” bill allowing local government to enter into agreements with tribes for the protection of citizens on and near tribal lands.

When the Committee convened last week our agenda focused on the increasing achievement gap between Native children and white children.

Members were astonished to learn typically fifty percent of Native children do not complete high school. Suspension and expulsion rates are higher than white students and many Native students leave high school without adequate preparation. An unusually high number of Native children are tagged as special education students - costing the school district more and leaving the child with a label that may not accurately reflect the child’s needs.  One school administrator said, “Special ed should not be the only game in town to support students.”

Another school administrator explained, in tears, her struggle to instill a love of learning within her teen-age Native students. One student with a chronic behavior problem told her that he didn’t need a job because he was Native. “The school cannot be held solely accountable for these problems,” she said. “The parents have an out for being poor parents; the community has an out for being discriminatory; the teachers have an out for being poor teachers. Change can’t happen without courageous leaders and a commitment by all.”

Part of the problem is teacher training, part is related to parental involvement, part is related to a system that provided resources only when the student is labeled special education and part is related to historic discrimination that still affects families.

A school social worker from Green Bay shared her childhood experience of being removed from her tribe and isolated from her parents. After the hearing I spoke with a man who shared the woman’s experience.

“In the ‘Indian Boarding Schools’ we were forced to cut our hair. We could not speak our Native language. We were required to wear different clothes and act in a certain way. Our heritage was demeaned and our culture was ripped from us,” he told me.

Several remedies for helping Native children succeed were discussed with the committee. One new idea, “Response to Intervention”, provides interventions before the student is labeled “Special Education”.

One of the administrators summarized the solution. “Intense instruction with high expectations will have positive outcomes,” he said. “This is not about what’s wrong with the child. It is about where the child is and what to do next.”