It’s rare to see an aha moment turn into action, but I witnessed one recently on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
The aha moment belonged to Larry Nesper, an anthropology professor at UW-Madison. About eight years ago, he was walking up the long stairway on Bascom Hill – the center of campus and the site that houses the chancellor’s office – with his friend, Tina Danforth, then (and now) the tribal chairwoman of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. When they reached the top, Nesper says, Danforth remarked at how beautiful the vista was. She told him she had never been there before.
“I was struck with that statement,” Nesper told a crowd gathered on March 13 for the UW/Native Nations Summit on Environment and Health – the result of his aha moment. “The chair of the Oneida Nation had not yet been on the campus of this public research institution in her official capacity, and as far as I knew there were no plans that she would be coming.”
While that thought lingered, Nesper discovered a few years later that a group called the Society of the American Indians held its fourth annual meeting on the UW-Madison campus for a week in October 1914. He described the society as “the first Native-led, Native bred” rights association in the United States. He called them a “progressive-era organization of educated Indian people” whose members sought policy change at the national level and worked for justice on the local level.
Among the society’s members were Henry Roe Cloud, Ho-Chunk, first Native American graduate of Yale University; Charles Eastman, Dakota, an author and physician; Carlos Montezuma, Yavapai-Apache, author, physician and activist; Laura Cornelius, Wisconsin Oneida, author and activist; and William Kershaw, Menominee, lawyer and assistant attorney general of Wisconsin.
At the society’s meeting in 1914, those gathered there debated a variety of issues, including the role of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and citizenship for American Indians.
According to Nesper, 57 Native people from at least 13 tribes attended the meeting. Two months later, a delegation met with President Woodrow Wilson and called for U.S. citizenship for American Indians.
Ten years later, Congress passed the Snyder Act, also known as the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
“The work of the Society would lead to changes in federal Indian policy, especially through the work of the National Congress of American Indians, a successor to the Society of American Indians,” Nesper wrote in a piece that appeared in a booklet distributed to attendees at the recent summit.
In commemoration of that historic meeting in 1914 and the century-long relationship between UW-Madison and Wisconsin tribes, Nesper and other UW-Madison faculty organized the summit on environment and health to “elevate and strengthen” the relationship between the research institution and the state’s Native nations.
The 12 Native nations invited to the summit were: Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Brothertown Indian Nation, Forest County Potawatomi Community, Ho-Chunk Nation, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Sokaogon Chippewa Community, St. Croix Chippewa Community and Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians.
At a keynote lecture during the summit, Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said that Native people “need to own their own data” and share their successes. Data is important for tribes to tell their own story, she said.
“The story moves mountains,” Pata said.
I had my own aha moment when I was told that this was the first time that representatives of all of the Wisconsin tribes had been invited to meet as a group with the university. Really?
As part of the summit, tribal officials met at a private lunch with UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank to begin a dialogue. Among the discussion topics was how to recruit more Native American students to UW-Madison.
It was impressive to see tribal leaders from my home state addressing the summit and speaking passionately about the views of their people in terms of the environment and health issues. More important, they professed their openness to working with UW-Madison researchers on projects that fit into their future plans.
I look forward to seeing the outcome of this century-old connection.
And I concur with Brooks Big John, a council member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who told the crowd gathered at the summit: “Let’s not wait a hundred years to have the next one.”
Follow me on Twitter @karenmichel.