How a New People Works Together
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come
because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (Lilla Watson)
On the first day of the Our Wisconsin Revolution (OWR) convention in June about 40 people came together to discuss “Working Together for Racial Justice.” The conversations that started here were among many transformational moments within the founding convention in Stevens Point, WI. By background, in its very early days well before the official founding of OWR, some members had experienced OWR as somewhat male-led, top-down and not connecting much with young people, people of color and other under-represented groups. Here speakers told their stories and participants conversed honestly toward a New People working together.
Art Shegonee opened with “Welcome to our Country“ where his Menominee ancestors had lived for over 10,000 years. Art with his wife Dawn, founded the Call for Peace Drum & Dance Company, and are active in the WI Grassroots Network.
Art recalled his tradition, “It is said that when the water turns to poison and you can no longer eat the fish, A New People will emerge.” The people will have the choice of two roads. One road is further destruction and greed. The other is the peace road that leads to spirituality with reverence for all living things. A united people can emerge to maintain clean water, to keep minerals underground, to share universal health care, and bring out the best in each other. A New People recognizes differences, but sees each other as family. Art shared the Medicine Wheel circle of peace and balance. “We need each other. Our futures are bound together by how we work together.”
Patricia (Paddy) Hawpetoss Brzezinski, J.D. is teaching Sustainable Development at the College of the Menominee Nation. She assisted the Menominee Legal Defense/Offense Committee during the Takeover of the Alexian Brothers Abbey. Continuing to lead, in 2016 she hosted an indigenous delegation to the Menominee from rural Colombia regarding their mutual battles against mining. At the last minute, Paddy could not be at the convention and asked me to pass on Menominee ways of radical hospitality, listening leadership, gentle parenting and warriors as protectors of peace. I explained how Paddy had prepared me to meet with the Menominee ceremonial chief in Zoar regarding a legal case. He told me that it was the Medicine Man who had traditionally been their go-between for contact with Europeans. But now they had to depend on an attorney like myself to represent them. Then he recited in perfect paragraphs the religious grounds for the affidavit I needed. In my work with indigenous people here and Latin America I learned to document and publicize injustices, to really listen to what indigenous people wanted, to respect their models of self organization, and to retain roles of women as partners in leadership.
I closed my remarks on Paddy’s behalf by reading from the Zoltan Grossman’s Unlikely Alliances: “In the strangest twist of the story, the areas that had the most intense conflict and polarization over fishing rights are where the anti-mining alliances became the easiest to form and the most effective. …The treaty struggles had educated white neighbors that Native cultures and legal rights were not artifacts of the past… and could protect the fish and water for everyone.” White landowners of Northern WI moved beyond their “Kill an Indian, Save a Fish” hatred. Certainly, we as OWR can move beyond our fears and our misconceptions. We can transform ourselves to work together today… because our liberation is bound up with each other’s liberation.
Guy Anahkwet Reiter was a Menominee archeologist who is steeped in traditional ways. He was called to lead opposition to a proposed Menominee Back Forty sulfide mine. He is helping to create a Wolf River Chapter of OWR. Anahkwet introduced himself as he was taught to do – in his own language, and with his traditional humor.
The Menominee survive despite genocide; despite losing millions of acres; despite the trauma of boarding schools; despite having once been terminated from even being a tribe; and despite ancestral remains being taken from burial grounds. “We survive. That’s what it means to be Menominee.”
Anahkwet explained that their creation story starts at the mouth of the Menominee River. “In our language the first bear or being came out of that River (close to the site of the proposed toxic mine). In this way we are connected to each human in this room. … My Uncle Art showed you the Medicine Wheel. When we are in that circle there is synchronicity of the four colors of humans – all of us are on a road to the center. This is a form of our indigenous mindfulness. We are trained in meditation. We pray for those with whom we struggle.” The forest, insects, water – everything in Wisconsin is good. For 500 years Menominee lived beside Europeans peacefully. It is time we all start listening to each other. May we open dialogue and share. “All throughout this conference – and afterwards – don’t be afraid to come up to me and ask me what’s on your mind.” Each person brings a gift that makes us stronger.
Mahlon Mitchell was, at 33 years of age, the youngest and first African American president of the Professional Fire Fighters of WI. Within weeks, Act 10 was passed. Mahlon ended up running for Lt. governor in the 2012 recall election, getting over 47% of the vote. Now seven years later Mahlon continues to be is one of the strongest voices for labor. He also campaigns tirelessly about PTSD and other serious health and safety issues.
Mahlon said that this panel was the most diverse and most interesting of panels in which he has participated. “I am learning a lot. My union was 99% white males. Still they named me their president. I had the full support of my union because I support union rights.” We identify with and vote for those who support us.
“I, too, don’t see a lot of political involvement from people of color. My story explains may explain why. I was born in a diverse neighborhood. But then our family moved to a community that was not diverse. I grew up apolitical – until Barrack Obama ran. That’s when I saw someone like me to vote for.
People will vote if there is someone who will make life better for us. We cannot stay in silos. Politics has to become more about what brings us together – what directly affects all our lives better – decent jobs, health care, decent wages, and security for retirement.
We need to get out of the mindset of just winning an election. We need to be organizing all the time, not just at voting time. We need a message that resonates, and a message that we care year round. We need people to fire up the base and to speak to all of the state… including women and people of color – with a clear message!
Jaime Alvarado served as the Deputy State Director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC-WI) when he provided testimony in the Voter ID lawsuit that went on to the Supreme Court. He was elected as a City of Milwaukee Elections Commissioner. In 2016, Jaime spearheaded a voter registration effort that garnered over 3,000 voters in a predominately Latino and African American sector. Jaime was born in Bogota, lived in Queens, New York, and then Milwaukee and Greenfield.
People who live in suburbs often only learn stereotypes. Bias and racism is learned. We need to start with the youth and introduce them to diverse people. Latinos are from many different cultures. LULAC does work to bring many different Latino ancestries together. But please don’t group us all together. To move forward we need to know where we came from. We need year long voter efforts with every group in the state. “When people of color see other people of color campaigning, we feel welcomed. We need to have people of color in leadership, as well as persons of different genders. This is why I worked for a more diverse Board of Directors for OWR.”
The crowd insisted that they would not leave before hearing our last speaker.
Davyn Hallmon is a 32 years old, gay, African American, Kenosha County Board Supervisor and classically trained musician. He has called out Paul Ryan’s voter suppression efforts. Davyn co-founded the LGBT Center of SE WI and the Kenosha Young Progressive Coalition. He helped develop Standing Together: An Interfaith Seminar at a local Islamic Center. He was on OWR’s IOC.
“Why should we care about racial justice? Because we don’t want to be spiritually sick! Our #45th president is spiritual sickness on display. Who acts like that? We don’t want to be like that.
If you are now asking how to make our movement more inclusive, I say you are already too late.
But I do say this, we definitely need to recognize that our differences are just as important as our similarities.
Look at Black Gospel Choir singers. Each one reflects her experiences. They didn’t get professional training to blend their voices and tones together. No, each voice moves us uniquely. Together you hear each different voice stand out and somehow they strengthen the experience. The differences and the unity exist simultaneously. It is a both/and situation. That’s how we need to be… celebrating our differences and working together.
We need to challenge people to bring out the best in themselves. People need to see our convictions and the fire of our convictions. This is what I see. This is how I become a decent human being. This is what I want to do as a decent human being. I don’t want to be spiritually sick. I want to be a decent human being.
Hand-out Everyone participating got information about the different Native Nations in WI with a challenge to all chapters of OWR as follows.
Most OWR chapters expect northern chapters to include Native Americans. But the 2010 census shows that the County in WI with the highest number of American Indians is Milwaukee County with 6,808 Native Americans. In fact, about 45 percent of this state’s Native population resides in metropolitan areas.
In These Times noted last October that Native Americans were more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group.
See more at the national OR https://ourrevolution.com/issues/empowering-tribal-nations/ where we are reminded that Native Americans continue to face appalling levels of inequality and systemic injustice. One in four Native Americans are living in poverty and the high school graduation rate is 67 percent, the lowest of any racial demographic group. The second leading cause of death for Native Americans between the ages of 15-24 is suicide. One in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime; most of the offenders are non-Native. Most federal programs promised tribal nations are under-funded, which leads to inadequate housing, healthcare, education, and law enforcement.
On the next day, June 24thm signs of a New People working together was the passage of a Short Platform that expects all its endorsed state and local candidates to: Honor treaty rights, consultation rights, jurisdiction, and sovereignty of native nations when making local and state decisions. OWR may be the first Our Revolution chapter to demand this as a basis for political endorsements, but likely to become a model for others.
Submitted by Mary Kay Baum, JD, M. Div., steward of a State Natural Area and representative of persons with cognitive changes. At age 21 she was elected to the Dane County Board and later to the Madison School board. She successfully handled several Menominee civil rights cases. She was a leader in the Labor Farm Party and in Progressive Dane. She led ten delegations to war-torn El Salvador. She was declared a “Friend of the Menominee” for her Indian sovereignty work.
Photos by Brian Cole