Time to Speak Out

After working for more than seven years on social justice issues in Madison, it’s time for Native Americans to become a larger part of the community dialogue on racial inequality. Just as alarming is the fact that even in a city of well-educated residents, I have encountered so many people who know little to nothing about native people, even though Wisconsin is home to 11 federally recognized tribes. 

By Wenona Wolf  with permission to repost from Madison Magazine

THE DAY THE WISCONSIN BADGERS men’s basketball team lost the 2015 NCAA Championship game   was disheartening for me, not for the loss, but because of the way my culture was demeaned. Like many people in Madison, I gathered with friends to enjoy the game at a local hangout. In recent months, I had become somewhat of a super fan, due in large part to Badgers point guard Bronson Koenig.

I grew to admire Koenig not only for his basketball skills but also because he openly embraced being a role model for Native American youth. Koenig, a member of the HoChunk tribe, never shied away from talking about his heritage or issues affecting native people. That’s something I struggled with at his age. So with tip-off near, sports fans at the bar excitedly cheered as the Badgers’ starting lineup was introduced. As Koenig’s name was announced, a 20-something white man next to me began doing the “tomahawk chop” and the “war chant” made infamous by the Atlanta Braves. Uncomfortable, hurt and angered, I was conflicted about what to do.

After a brief confrontation, the man reassured me he was “honoring” Koenig. It was obvious he hadn’t heard Koenig’s message days earlier when the athlete spoke out about race-based mascots and imagery and the harm they cause Native Americans. This was just another incident I would add to my mental list of semi-racist encounters I have experienced as a Native American living in Madison—one of America’s most liberal cities.

The Native American community in Madison is relatively small, about 0.4 percent of the population. The overall native population in Wisconsin is about 1 percent, which is minute in comparison to the white population of more than 87 percent. Our people are often out of sight, living on reservations in rural Wisconsin, or they blend into other diverse communities in our urban cities—a direct effect of federal policies once created to diminish our culture.

This means we are often left out of the public conversation. I am referring to the important conversation that happens here in Madison among community leaders, policymakers, government officials and nonprofit organizations that dictates what programs, policies and laws are created and where funding is directed. And even when we are at the table, we are met with a long list of reasons as to why working with tribes is just too hard. This lack of inclusion continues our country’s great legacy of systematically leaving native people behind.

Just as alarming is the fact that even in a city of well-educated residents, I have encountered so many people who know little to nothing about native people, even though Wisconsin is home to 11 federally-recognized tribes. Clearly, it is a direct reflection of what is taught, and not taught, in our public schools. Ironically, there are very few places you can travel to in Wisconsin without running into a city or body of water named after us, yet so many people fail to acknowledge we exist. The lack of knowledge about native people, culture and issues has often put me in some uncomfortable situations.

And as the word “disparity” has become part of regular conversation in Madison, I have noticed the lack of conversation about the disparities Native Americans face. Thirty-eight percent of Native American children in Wisconsin live in poverty compared to 11 percent of their white counterparts. Native American adults in our state are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty, and Wisconsin leads the nation in imprisoning Native American men. The University of Wisconsin–Madison cites that 46 percent of undergraduate Native American women report being sexually assaulted. Nationally, Native American women are paid 59 cents for every dollar white men are paid, far less than the 79 cents to the dollar gender-gap statistic that is often cited for women. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for native youth—2.5 times the national rate.

These statistics should anger us all. As should the disparities that face our African American, Latino and Hmong populations in Wisconsin. We must join together and work hard to find ways to address various issues each community of color is facing. Each one of us can start by better understanding native people and issues they confront. Educate yourself by reading Native American authors, tribal publications, or by visiting the websites of local tribes. Learn about the history and federal policies that have shaped them. Reach out to some of the amazing Native American and non-native people in our community who have been working hard on these issues much longer than I have.

Then start incorporating what you’ve learned into public conversations. It would go a long way toward creating understanding and diminishing stereo-typical images. As you’re riding your bike to work, look around and remember this land once belonged to my people; and when you’re advocating to make Wisconsin a more equitable place, remember us, too. My people’s traditions and teachings are handed down through the generations. I come from a long line of strong women who worked hard to make life better for their families and others. My grandmother, whose little income came from working in the rutabaga fields of Northern Wisconsin, always managed to put food on the table and a roof over the heads of my mother and aunts and uncles. More significantly, she taught her children and grandchildren the importance of our culture and the pride in being Native American.

Still, I cannot overlook that our reservations are impoverished, our kids are killing themselves at faster rates than any other race, many of our men are locked away and our women deal with a high volume of domestic abuse and sexual assault. My mother and grandmother fought certain battles so I could have a better life, and now I’m fighting this battle so my nieces, nephews and future generations won’t be burdened by statistics and disparities.

I’ve gotten over the Badgers’ loss to Duke in the 2015 NCAA Championship game, but I haven’t gotten over the insensitive behavior I witnessed that night. And I won’t. It’s one of the many things that drives me to be an advocate for Native Americans and other communities of color. While that responsibility isn’t easy, I take it on because I don’t know who else will. It’s my generation’s turn to speak out.


Wenona Wolf grew up on the St. Croix Chippewa Reservation in northwest Wisconsin and is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. She is the communication and development manager for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and its Race to Equity Project.