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Forward with the first environmentalists

Fall/Winter 2014 | By Paul Robbins

There is a good reason the native nations of Wisconsin are often referred to as the “first environmentalists.” Working with the land, its waterways and its wildlife, native nations have been the environmental leaders in Wisconsin for more than 1,000 years.

The Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee and Brothertown Indians, along with urban native peoples, all have a long history of environmental vision. The Menominee forest is a model of ecological stewardship. Ojibwe fish hatcheries and wild rice management efforts are state-of-the art. The Potawatomi are the first Indian nation to rely 100 percent on renewable energy sources.

Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins. Photo courtesy
Chengdu Institute of Biology.

These are only a few examples of ways that in Wisconsin, on the environment, tribes lead. At the Nelson Institute, we are keen to highlight and support initiatives where tribal communities have taken leadership, bringing campus resources to bear in support of native nations. The opportunities for collective benefit are enormous, despite the sometimes-fraught nature of the relationship between Indian peoples and the state of Wisconsin.

And no good can come from sugar-coating it. Statehood for Wisconsin, almost 150 years ago, meant the violent loss of native lands, native rights and native sovereignty. In the intervening period, native lands have been flooded, re-appropriated and used as sites of extraction and disposal. As a state university, it is impossible (and disingenuous) to disentangle UW-Madison from the larger political and military history that marks the saddest chapter in the region’s history.

Having said this, the university has also long played a critical role in advancing the interests of Wisconsin’s native nations, partnering on projects for education, outreach and basic science, and working with tribes wherever their sovereign interests take them. Starting 100 years ago with a native summit held on this campus and continuing throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, university-tribal partnerships, especially around environmental questions, have a long and exciting history. As we hope to highlight in this issue of In Common, the university has worked with tribal partners to integrate cultural traditions into climate change education, provide legal assistance on indigenous matters, preserve native languages, battle childhood obesity, and much more.

And as environmental problems become more complex – amidst climate change, rising resource demands and water resource stress – UW-Madison and the tribes of the region are more and more in need of cooperation and mutual support. The university and the tribes of Wisconsin, for better and for worse, are together facing the environmental challenges of the 21st century.

It is for that reason that in 2014 the Nelson Institute formally made engaging Wisconsin’s native nations one of its highest strategic priorities. To do it, we’ll need to think about the relationship in a new way.

Research with tribes cannot follow the old extractive model it sometimes has in the past, where naturalists, anthropologists or folklorists extracted knowledge, history and resources from tribes to advance academic careers. Instead, campus expertise and native knowledge and needs will have to merge into projects and ideas that advance native nations, the people of the state, the students on our campus, and the communities all around us. I think the University of Wisconsin and the Nelson Institute are up for the challenge. I hope this issue of In Common will show you why.

Paul Robbins sig
Paul Robbins
Director, Nelson Institute 



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