Indigenous Peoples Day

According to Think Progress, a movement to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October is spreading throughout the country. Since the adoption of the first Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992 by the city of Berkeley, California, many other communities, cities, states and other types of municipalities are following suit.

Just last week, the City of Madison announced a proclamation declaring today to be Indigenous Peoples Day. Only a year ago a similar proclamation was adopted by Dane County. The movement has also reached the university as the University of Wisconsin’s Associated Students of Madison recently passed legislation to recognize the second Monday of each October as Indigenous People Day throughout campus.

To be clear, the embracing of this movement by an increasingly broader coalition of people is righteous, certainly worthwhile, and important. But given the historic invisibility of Native people and tribal communities, and the struggles these communities face, it is also important that, as the movement grows, we commit to bringing greater visibility to these communities by recognizing their achievements and struggles more than just once a year.

Native Americans have existed in our state for over 10,000 years, and they continue to play a big role in Wisconsin’s communities, culture, and economy. The state is home to 12 Indigenous tribes and some 86,000 Native Americans. Each tribe boasts its own language dialects, art forms, traditional practices, and oral histories. In addition to enriching our state with their rich culture, each tribe positively contributes to local and state economies. In fact, according to a 2014 report from the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, the total economic impact of Wisconsin tribes was just under $1.1 billion.

It is indisputable that tribal communities have much to offer our state, but unfortunately genocide, colonization, and years of discrimination and disparities have made life much more difficult for many Native Americans residing here. Many state and federal policies adopted throughout history have had long-lasting, detrimental effects on Native communities. In Wisconsin, 41% of Native American children live in poverty compared to 10% of the white population. In 2014, the average age at death for Native Americans was 63 years compared to 77 years for whites. Native Americans in Wisconsin also  suffer high rates of suicide, especially for children under 18 who have the highest age-adjusted suicide rate (2.5 deaths per 100,000) across all races.

We must do a better job of understanding these communities, their struggles, and listening when they speak out about their lived experiences. It is only through gaining knowledge of the conditions and issues these communities face that we can be effective allies.

One place we can start is by making sure children in our state are receiving accurate instruction on Native American history and culture. Fortunately for us, there is already a legislative mandate on the books. Lets’ work to ensure that our public schools are adhering to Act 31, a statutory requirement that all school districts provide instruction in the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of the twelve American Indian nations and tribes in the state.

While it’s inspiring that communities across our country are celebrating Indigenous people on a day once reserved for a man who raped, murdered, and destroyed Indigenous people and their culture, it’s important that the experiences, struggles, and successes of Native American people become part of everyday conversation. We owe it to Wisconsin’s Native communities to be better allies, partners, and friends.

Wenona Wolf