Sokaogon Chippewa leader calls for action on public health and safety in 2023 State of the Tribes address

Robert Van Zile, chair of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, called on lawmakers to increase health care access on tribal lands, fight pollution and end violence against Indigenous women in the annual State of the Tribes address to the Wisconsin Legislature.

Associated Press

March 15, 2023

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Robert VanZile stands behind a podium on a wood dais and speaks to people seated in rows of rolling chairs and desks, in a meeting room with marble walls and pillars, decorated with eagle staffs and red, white and blue bunting.

Robert VanZile, chair of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community and member of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, Inc. board of directors, delivers remarks during the 19th annual State of the Tribes Address at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on March 14, 2023. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The leader of a northeastern Wisconsin tribe implored lawmakers on March 14 to do more to address threats to public health and safety that disproportionately affect Native Americans.

Robert Van Zile, chairman of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, called for actions to increase access to health care on tribal lands, fight pollution and end violence against Native American women as he delivered the annual State of the Tribes address to a joint session of the Wisconsin Legislature.

Van Zile asked lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility for Native Americans and allow nurse practitioners to treat tribal patients without a physician’s supervision.

“The tribes face a huge barrier with recruiting and retaining medical staff since the pandemic,” he said. “It’s very difficult for a tribe to compete with wages for health care professionals.”

He also asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to support an item in Democratic Gov. Tony Evers budget devoting nearly $3.7 million annually to create an Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women within the state Department of Justice.

“The missing and murdered indigenous women, or MMIW, crisis affects everyone in our state, regardless of age, race or political party,” Van Zile said.

Wisconsin does not formally track statewide numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women. A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice found that 84.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1% who have experienced sexual violence. Evers’ proposed office would administer grants and offer resources to victims and witnesses to address what the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has labeled a national crisis.

Republican leaders have promised to start from scratch and write their version of the budget, which Evers can revise with partial vetoes.

Rep. Mark Born, who co-chairs the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, said before the address that he plans to work with tribal leaders during the budget process, but he did not comment on the specifics of Evers’ plan.

Van Zile commended Evers for defending the treaty rights of Native Americans to hunt, fish and gather on land across the state. But he pleaded with lawmakers to address so-called forever chemicals, also known as PFAS, which have contaminated water across Wisconsin.

“What is the value of a home with no water supply, a poison well?” Van Zile said. “I would encourage the state to work with tribes who for hundreds of years have lived close to the land.”

He also asked for the Legislature to authorize an environmental impact study of Enbridge Line 5, a controversial oil and gas pipeline in northern Wisconsin that Van Zile called “slow, systematic poisoning of our resources.”

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues

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