Learning and Unlearning Hatred: Treaty Rights and the Wisconsin Curriculum

By Susan Solterman

As a newly hired legislative aide for State Representative Frank Boyle (D-Superior), Chair of the American Indian Study Committee, the spring of 1989 will forever be etched in my mind as my “initiation rite” to the spearfishing issue. Our first phone call from an irate constituent was a lesson in reality. Unfortunately, the person who called our office to vent frustration over the disparity between the bag limits for non-Indians and Indians was not mollified by my agreement that it was indeed an unequal situation—unequal because his privilege as a white man in this society precludes all else.

The phone call proved to be my first experience with the many angry, confrontational voices and faces that appeared in the next two months. The intense racial hatred reflected in newspaper photos of camouflage-clad protesters holding signs that read “Timber Nigger” or a simulated Indian head mounted on a pitchfork challenged protesters’ insistence that their actions weren’t racially motivated.

The effects of the controversy had even penetrated the schools. In Crandon, a high school with a 15% Indian student population located near the Mole Lake Chippewa reservation, a group of non-Indian students showed up wearing anti-spearfishing T-shirts. They were sent home to change. At North Lakeland Elementary School in Boulder Junction a student brought home violent anti-treaty sketches which had been circulating among the children in a grade school classroom. When the superintendent of the school district was approached by an Associated Press reporter, the school official admitted that he himself had been part of the crowd at the boat landings; the official said he had gone to “try and find a solution” to the treaty conflict.

How Racism Takes Root in Our Children’s Minds

The National Council of Churches defines racism as “prejudice plus power. Racism is also the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others, based on an unexamined assumption of the other’s inferiority. Racism is used to impose one group’s cultural heritage on others and used by institutions to reward and penalize.”

Gordon W. Allport, a Harvard Professor of Psychology, in his renowned book The Nature of Prejudice explains that a child’s initial introduction to racism is through language. The next phase of learning racism is roughly between the ages of seven and eleven when the child assumes opinions learned from his/her parents regarding different ethnic groups. At this age the behavior is exaggerated and children go overboard in their prejudiced proclamations; however, in a few years they learn to temper their attitude with a rationalized defense for their opinion. Subsequently, adolescents are able to enter their adult years with a familiar pattern of bigoted thinking. By this point, changing this negative system of assumptions is an arduous task.

A Racially Sensitive Curriculum

The blatant exposure of this racism in northern Wisconsin, and the constant denial of its existence, proved to be the impetus for mandating a Wisconsin Indian history curriculum. Realizing the need to address the situation in more than just a band-aid or, rather, law enforcement – aid fashion, Representative Frank Boyle (D-Superior) sought to explore the type of curriculum available for schools through the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). We discovered that very few resources existed even for those teachers who took it upon themselves to teach Wisconsin history accurately.

In our effort to find advocates of a more enlightened curriculum, we ran across information published by the American Indian Language and Culture Education Board (AILCEB). Alan Caldwell, a Menominee and member of the board as well as an education consultant for DPI, presented us with a copy of a resolution which was passed by the board in the fall of 1987. The resolution recommended that the State Legislature, direct the Department of Public Instruction, in cooperation with Wisconsin Indian tribes, develop Wisconsin Indian curriculum and establish an Indian Education office.

This resolution influenced our initiative a great deal. The AILCEB had realized the need for such an office in DPI long before we had and had patiently waited for someone in the Legislature to take action. Without the assistance of Bill Gollnick, an Oneida who chairs the AILCEB, who is also an assistant chancellor at UW-Green Bay; Barbara Thomas, staff for AILCEB; and Alan Caldwell, we would not have been able to successfully formulate the parameters for our proposal.

Our efforts were further encouraged when we learned that Minnesota had a well established Indian Education Section within their Department of Education. The section, (created by the Minnesota Indian Language and Cultural Act of 1976), has a thirteen person staff and a $6 million budget.

To create such an office in Wisconsin we amended the 1989 Budget Bill to include a $600,000 appropriation for an Indian Education Office within DPI to assist schools with Indian history and culture curriculum. By then, our plan consisted of the establishment of an Indian Education Office and required instruction in Wisconsin Indian history and culture in the social studies curriculum (twice in the elementary grades and at least once in the secondary). We decided to extend the plan to include, as a prerequisite for teacher licensure, instruction in minority group relations, particularly in the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of the Wisconsin Indians.

The proposal came at a most opportune time. The Legislature and the Thompson administration had suffered seriously over the spearfishing issue and any opportunity to inconspicuously act on the issue was taken as a safeguard against accusations of lack of leadership.

The violent protests and what Sharon Metz, a treaty rights supporter and former legislator, calls the “deafening silence” of party leaders on the issue, placed Thompson and the Legislature in the media noose.

Representative Boyle’s vocal dissent over the violence at the boat landings made him a political anomaly. According to Boyle, “Elected officials considered it political suicide to say too much about the racism at the boat landings. And they knew better because it was clear from the start that the reaction to spearfishing was not about fish. After all, statistics indicate that the Indians have only taken 6% of the harvestable catch. The issue is a poor economy; lack of fish and the Indians are serving as convenient scapegoats.”

With a bit of successful political maneuvering, the amendment survived the budget process, though it suffered an unfortunate cut in funding for the Indian Education Office. The allocation was cut in half, and three of the six staff positions were eliminated. Even so, we felt fortunate to have at least secured the existence of such an office within DPI.

Gary Sandefur, Director of the American Indian Studies Program and Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a recent La Follette Institute Essay for a Madison newspaper, “The citizens of Wisconsin owe it to the original inhabitants of the state and to themselves to educate themselves and their children about who the Indians of Wisconsin are and how they came to be in their current location and economic situation. If more people in Wisconsin knew the history of Indians in the state, if more people knew how much Indians were forced to give up, and if more people knew about the historical and symbolic significance of treaty rights, the misunderstanding over treaty rights and the resentment against Indians would quickly disappear.”

We concur.

Susan Solterman is the legislative aide to State Representative Frank Boyle (D – Superior).