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Reflecting on Wisconsin’s earliest Thanksgivings

The story sounds familiar: In the 1600s, starving Europeans, new to the continent, were rescued with gifts of food from Native Americans, with whom they joined to give thanks.

Except this particular Thanksgiving story didn’t happen near Plymouth Rock. It happened in Wisconsin in 1659, just 38 years after the Pilgrims’ feast.

That’s one example of the rich Thanksgiving history held by the Badger State. Mary Spielman Roller, a resident of what became Milwaukee’s south side, even claimed to have introduced turkeys as the Thanksgiving bird in the state of Wisconsin, in 1835. She brought four birds from Buffalo, New York, when she settled in Milwaukee at the age of 18.

“Mrs. Roller assisted her husband in cutting down huge trees to use in building a log hut, and to make a clearing in the forest wherein to plant some grain and build a coop for the turkeys,” according to an early newspaper account. As the animals multiplied, “The Indians were constantly trying to steal them. Although not openly hostile, the Indians were apt to show anger when opposed by a woman.”

Of course, Roller could only claim she was the first to distribute turkeys to others for Thanksgiving — the bird is native to Wisconsin, and common. The Wisconsin State Journal recalled in 1930 that in Madison’s early days, turkeys “ran wild over the present university campus.” White settlers had great difficulty hunting them, however. Mark Twain later wrote of his own frustrating experience, “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey.” 

Roller’s daughter recalled that Native Americans were invited to her mother’s first Wisconsin Thanksgiving. They “came in their native costumes, adding a touch of bright color to the monotony that pioneer decoration has always assumed.”

Native Americans here already had their own thanksgiving ceremonies. The Ojibwe celebrated in early spring, however, as a “first fruits of the season” event. Any food caught, collected or harvested had to be first offered to what white settlers called their “Great Spirit.”

As a federal holiday, Thanksgiving is fairly recent. Far from a banquet, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln set aside Aug. 30 as “a national day of humiliation, fasting and prayer.” The Civil War still raged and the occasion was decidedly spiritual, “so that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high.” It continued as a semi-religious observance for decades. 

Wisconsin’s first official observance of Thanksgiving was in 1830, when it was still part of the Michigan Territory. Gov. Lewis Cass declared that a day of Thanksgiving be observed on Nov. 25.

“I recommend to the inhabitants of the Territory that, refraining from all labor, inconsistent with the duties and solemnity of the day, they repair to their respective houses of public worship,” he proclaimed, “and unite in suitable acknowledgements to the ‘Giver of every good gift.’”

As late as 1876, the State Journal reported that much of the day was spent in church, although dining also was celebrated. In Madison, former Gov. Cadwallader Washburn and other nabobs ate in hotels. “There was good skating on Monona Bay, which was well enjoyed by a large number of youth.” Evening brought a fireman’s ball and several plays — one of them starring a young man soon to be known as “Fighting Bob” LaFollette.

Wisconsin achieved statehood in 1848 and the holiday afterward roamed the calendar; the present national date wasn’t fixed until 1939. In 1844, Gov. James Duane Doty even named Dec. 12 as Thanksgiving.

But Wisconsin’s earliest-recorded meal of thanksgiving was that celebration in 1659. Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers, the first French explorers to enter the state after Jean Nicollet ran out of provisions during a hard winter in what is today Bayfield County.

They ate their dogs. They backtracked to their previous camps and dug the refuse of past meals from snowbanks. They boiled guts, skin and sinew and consumed it. They crushed and ate powdered bones. Some of the hair from hides was burned for fire, “the rest goes downe our throats, eating heartily these things most abhorred,” Radisson wrote later. “We went so eagerly for it that our gums did bleede like one newly wounded.”

They started to eat wood.

“Finaly we became the very Image of death. We mistook ourselves very often, taking the living for the dead and ye dead for the living,” he wrote.

They were rescued by the Odawa (Ottowa), who fed them wild rice, turkey and other foods. Groseillers gave a speech of thanksgiving. The pair were later reclothed and underwent a series of Odawa ceremonies they did not understand.

“After this,” wrote Groseillers, “they weeped upon our heads until we weare wetted by their tears.”

And so it was, just a few decades after Plymouth Rock, that Thanksgiving came to Wisconsin.

Navajo Nation president: Suicides linked to pollution of sacred waterways

In testimony before Congress, letters to the federal government and press releases, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and his vice president have brought up recent tragedies that have shaken some reservation towns to their cores.

They said eight people killed themselves in communities impacted by the unleashing of toxic waste from a Colorado gold mine into the San Juan River on the Navajo Nation, burdened by the stress of seeing a sacred waterway polluted.

“When you’re being abandoned in your great time of need, what do you do? It causes great amount of distress,” Begaye said at a recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing where he pleaded for more resources from the federal government over the spill.

Some residents in the affected communities were skeptical, wondering whether there’s a direct correlation between the mine spill and suicides. Some saw the suggested link as an effort for tribal leaders to score political points on a national stage.

Residents in the region learned something was wrong with the river — a vital source of water for livestock, drinking and crops — through social media, radio reports and by seeing new people around their towns. The Aug. 5 spill took days to reach the reservation.

Farmers wept at the sight of their crops wilting, livestock owners started hauling water from elsewhere to sustain their animals and the tribal utility stopped pulling drinking water from the river.

Begaye responded harshly to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and hosted prominent environment advocate Erin Brockovich on a tour of the reservation.

Begaye invoked suicides in a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Oct. 2, asking for a preliminary damage assessment from the mine spill. The agency denied the request.

Begaye also referenced “three suicides in communities that were affected by the Gold King Mine spill” in a mid-September plea to the federal government for mental health and cancer treatment facilities on the reservation.

He told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee of the suicides a day later during a hearing on the impacts of the mine spill.

A spokesman for the president at the time said Begaye was referring to suicides in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez have said the tribe’s Department of Health is investigating any connection between the suicides and the mine spill. Neither one responded to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Messages left at the health department weren’t returned.

Between July 1 and Oct. 15, at least 10 people died of suicide in the two police districts that cover communities along the San Juan River, according to Navajo police statistics. Six of those happened after the mine spill.

The statistics also show more than three times as many suicide attempts in those districts.

But the communities also suffer deep hardships like rampant unemployment, poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that are major contributors to high suicide rates – an issue on American Indian reservations nationwide.

The suicide rate for American Indians aged 15 to 24 is more than twice the national rate.

Local churches responded to the suicides with prayer walks. Students participated in a program about American Indian pride and values, helping one another and leadership. Tribal, county and state agencies sent in counselors and others to help.

The Utah Navajo Health System declared an emergency, freeing up resources for programs, services and staffing. Hendy said his organization got the OK to hire someone dedicated to addressing suicide prevention, substance abuse and healthy lifestyles.

Tribal vote endorses legalizing marijuana use on Wisconsin reservation

Members of the Menominee Indian Tribe endorsed legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana use on a northeastern Wisconsin reservation.

Tribal leaders referred to the endorsement as an advisory vote, with about 77 percent of tribal citizens voting for medical marijuana and 58 backing recreational use.

Next, said chairman Gary Besaw, tribal legislators will study whether to move forward.

The U.S. Justice Department said in 2014 that it would not interfere with tribes seeking to legalize and regulate marijuana.

However, tribes have been cautious about moving forward.

“This is all new ground we’re breaking,” Besaw said, according to the AP. “It’s hard to get definitive answers.”

Asked whether the tribe would consider commercial sales — selling marijuana to non-members — Besaw said only that the tribe would defer to the U.S. attorney’s office in Wisconsin in interpreting the Justice Department’s 2014 memorandum.

In South Dakota, where the Flandreau Santee Sioux announced plans to develop a pot-selling operation, the U.S. attorney warned that non-Indians would be breaking the law if they used pot on the reservation.

Besaw said, “People more clearly understand the benefit of medicinal marijuana. Even those who voted no on the recreational have said … we know there is value in medicinal marijuana and there clearly are individuals who benefit from it.”

About 13 percent of the tribe’s 9,000 members cast ballots.

Madison school district bans American Indian team logos

Sports fans may have to leave their Blackhawks, Indians or Redskins gear at home if they plan on entering a Madison public school next year.

Starting this fall, public school students in Wisconsin’s capital city cannot wear shirts, hats or other items that display the name, logo or mascot of any team that portrays a “negative stereotype” of American Indians. Those who do must change or face suspension or expulsion.

The existence of these mascots destroys our self-esteem. The existence of these mascots shows us how people really think of us,” Gabriel Saiz, a junior at Madison West High, told the city school board in May shortly before it voted unanimously to adopt the policy.

The district’s dress code says a list of prohibited logos and mascots would be made available before the beginning of the school year.

The move comes some two years after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a law that made it harder for the state’s public schools to drop tribal nicknames. The measure was prompted by officials in a handful of Wisconsin cities who refused to part with mascots such as the Chieftains and the Indians after the state Department of Public instruction ordered them to drop the monikers. Previous state law allowed the state agency to launch a hearing into each race-based nickname with a single complaint. Current law requires a petition to trigger the hearing.

Larry Dupuis, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said he was not pleased with the Madison school district’s move. He said it limits students’ free speech and seems counterproductive by stifling conversation about American Indian portrayals.

“This kind of Band-Aid doesn’t fix these sorts of underlying problems,” Dupuis said. “What a horrible thing to tell kids that we can’t discuss these ideas, that we should avert our eyes to this.”

Brian Howard, a spokesman for the National Congress of American Indians, welcomed the ban, which he said was the first he’d heard of in a public school. He said a private school, Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland, approved a much more limited ban in February against only the word “Redskins,” the mascot of the Washington, D.C. NFL team. The school doesn’t require uniforms.

“If people are asked to turn their shirts inside out, that’s going to get people talking,” Howard said. “They’re going to ask, `Why?’ They’re always going to inquire about it.”

Republican State Rep. Andre Jacque said that not all American Indians reject the mascots. He pointed to Mishicot, a village in his district where local tribe spokesmen have approved of the public school district’s mascot – the Indian.

“Native American mascots have served as a point of pride for Native American students and fans,” Jacque said.

Thirty-one Wisconsin high schools use Indian mascots and logos, said Barbara Munson, an Oneida Indian who chairs the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s mascots and logos task force.

Feds file discrimination suit against Utah meatpacking plant

The federal government is suing a Colorado-based company, saying it systematically discriminated against qualified job applicants at its meatpacking plant in Utah.

The Labor Department, in the complaint filed with its Office of Administrative Law Judges, cited a number of violations by JBS USA at its plant in Hyrum.

JBS is accused of discriminating against female, Caucasian, African American and American Indian applicants seeking entry-level jobs at the plant, located about 90 miles north of Salt Lake City.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Herald Journal of Logan reports federal contracts held by JBS are in jeopardy as a result of the suit.

Based in Greeley, Colorado, JBS is a wholly owned subsidiary of Brazilian meat-processing giant JBS S.A. 

Call to action: KXL opponents to march on Washington April 27

A coalition of tribal communities, ranchers, farmers, Canadian First Nations, environmental groups and communities along the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline route announced the Reject and Protect action in Washington, D.C.

The action will begin with a the arrival of activists on horseback on April 22, which is Earth Day, and it will culminate with a march on April 27.

An announcement of the event from the Cowboy and Indian Alliance — a group of tribal communities, farmers and ranchers united to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — was in a letter organizers sent to hundreds of thousands of activists.

The Reject and Protect campaign is endorsed by a number of groups, whose leaders issued statements of support. They include:

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader among the Dakota, Lakota, Nakota people: “Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of mankind.  Do you think that the creator would create unnecessary people in a time of danger? Know that you are essential to this world. The biggest cancer spreading upon Mother Earth is the tar sands.”

Tom Genung, Nebraska Landowner: “As a land owner and a pipeline fighter, it is an honor and privilege to stand together with tribal brothers and sisters. It is our duty to protect the sacred for the seven generations to come. We stand together as one people working together to help President Obama take measures for clean environmental decisions which includes denial of TransCanada’s permit which has no legal route in our great state of Nebraska.”

Chief Reuben George, Tsleil-Waututh: “One thing I can say right off the bat is that we are winning. When we come together like this, we become stronger. There is no price for our water and lands.  The lessons we receive from Mother Earth is to become better human beings.  We give back to the earth and the land.  The pipelines do not do that.  We are going to win!”

Hilton Kelley, founder and director of Community In-Power and Development Association: “The people living on the Gulf of Mexico in the City of Port Arthur, TX and Houston, TX are disproportionately impacted by refinery and chemical plant emissions. A large number of our residents at this present time are suffering from respiratory issues, cancer and liver and kidney disease, If the tar sands material is piped into our community for refining at the neighboring plants, there will be a serious increase in the emission levels into the very air we breathe. Our state government has not been much help in supporting our efforts to reduce the toxins in our air; we most certainly hope that we can depend on our federal Government to protect those in the low income and people of color communities as well as all others.”

Bill McKibben, 350.org founder: “It was native people and Nebraska ranchers that really started this battle, and so it’s so fitting that they’re the ones leading this last appeal to the president to do the right thing. We’ve gone wrong in this country before when we didn’t listen to its original inhabitants; let’s hope Keystone becomes the opportunity to show we’re wising up.”

Faith Spotted Eagle, Yankton Sioux: “We are writing a new history by standing on common ground by preventing the black snake of Keystone XL from risking our land and water. We have thousands of Native sacred sites that will be affected adversely. The Americans facing eminent domain now know what it felt like for us to lose land to a foreign country.  There is no fairness or rationale to justify the risk of polluting our waterways with benzene and other carcinogens. Native people are ready to speak for the four-leggeds and the grandchildren who cannot speak for themselves. The answer is no pipeline.”

Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director: “The April 27 ’Reject and Protect’ march will focus on the communities on the front line of the Keystone XL tar sands fight. Dirty tar sands threaten our climate, and they threaten the health and well-being of the people who live along the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline route. For these families, nothing short of their water, land, and their children’s safety is at stake.  The Sierra Club is proud to stand with these communities and call on President Obama to reject dirty and dangerous tar sands once and for all.”

Roger Milk, Rosebud Sioux: “This just isn’t an Indian thing. We all drink the same water.”

Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska executive director: “Tribal and ranching communities protect our neighbors first and foremost. That is at our core. We will bring our pipeline fighting spirit to Washington, DC in order for President Obama to see our faces so he knows he is not making a decision about a line on a map, he is making a decision about our families and our neighbors. The President said he wants to be able to look at his daughters and say ‘yes he did’ do everything he could to combat climate change. We intend to ensure he honors his word.”

Gary Dorr, Nez Perce, Shielding the People media coordinator: “We will Stand the Line.”

Maura Cowley, Energy Action Coalition executive director: “Indigenous communities and ranchers are fighting to stop Keystone XL as a matter of survival, and it’s time that we and President Obama stand with them to stop this dirty and destructive project from ruining their land and water. For too long indigenous communities have encouraged us to look out for future generations and our country has ignored them. This must end with the Keystone decision, nothing short of our future is at stake.”

Becky Bond, CREDO political director: “People literally living on the frontlines of our fight against Keystone XL will be taking their case directly to the president in April. We stand in solidarity with the ranchers and tribes whose lands and waters face imminent danger from the imposition of a dirty pipeline by a foreign oil company. And CREDO joins over 86,000 people who are willing to risk arrest if necessary to back up that solidarity with action.”

On Twitter: #NOKXL