Wisconsin Native leader calls on Legislature to improve health infrastructure

The leader of a northeastern Wisconsin tribe implored lawmakers on Tuesday to do more to address threats to public health and safety that disproportionately affect Native Americans.

Robert VanZile, 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.

VanZile 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,’ VanZile 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.

VanZile 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?’ VanZile 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 VanZile called ‘slow, systematic poisoning of our resources.’

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