Buck Martin a long-time advocate for Native American issues

This member of the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe...
Buck Martin a long-time advocate for Native American issues

Buck Martin had a long career working on Native American issues in Wisconsin, but that doesn’t mean he spent decades doing just one thing.

On the contrary. Martin–his real first name is Waldo–was at various times an advocate, an advisor, a coordinator and a lobbyist.

Alliances were not always easily defined. When Martin, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, was working as a policy advisor for Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson in the late 1980s, a controversy involving treaty rights and spearfishing was threatening to boil over. Tribal leaders were invited to the Executive Residence in Maple Bluff.

An Ojibwe tribal chairman confronted Martin on the steps of the governor’s mansion.

“So, you’ve gone over to the dark side.”

“Look,” Martin said. “When Tommy Thompson starts talking about treaty rights, or any Indian issue whatsoever, do you want me in that room or not?”

“I want you in the room,” the chairman said.

Things usually went well enough with Martin in the room that when he retired this past spring–he turns 70 Aug. 25–his tribe held a celebration for him at the Stockbridge-Munsee-operated North Star Mohican Casino Resort.

Usually, he is quicker with a quip than a tear. Martin is known for his humor, and being able to use a joke to make a point. After all, this is a man who, when his daughter got married last year in the Capitol’s Assembly Chambers, walked her down the aisle wearing a Darth Vader mask.

“Lina,” he said, quoting a famous “Star Wars” line, “I’m your father.”

But on the night of his retirement celebration in April, Martin couldn’t help but get a little emotional. He was presented with a Pendleton blanket containing the “Many Trails” insignia symbolizing the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe’s arduous journey from the East Coast to Wisconsin. Buck’s father, Edwin Martin, created the “Many Trails” design.|

“I was touched by the whole thing,” says Martin. “Here they were honoring me, and it felt like my dad was there with me.”

Martin has lived in Madison since the late 1970s with his wife Karen, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. They raised two daughters and now have three granddaughters.

The history of the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe in Wisconsin dates to the first half of the 19th century, when they migrated–“or were pushed,” Martin notes wryly–out of New York’s Hudson Valley.

Their route took them through Ohio and Indiana, and finally to Wisconsin–the eastern side of Lake Winnebago–where one of the tribe’s members, Electa Quinney, became the state’s first public school teacher.

Buck Martin was born in the hospital
in Shawano in 1946 and grew up on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation nearby. He was “Waldo” until he was 4, when on a family outing to pick berries, he fell asleep in the back of the station wagon. It was a time when kids could be left sleeping in the back of the car. When the family returned with their berries, a large buck had its nose nearly pressed to the back window
of the station wagon. Sitting up inside, staring wide-eyed at the deer, was young Waldo. From that moment onward, no one called him anything but Buck.

“I didn’t know the story behind the name until 20 years later,” Martin says. “My brother finally told me.”

He attended the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, the first of his family to go to college, and studied education. A bureaucratic mix-up regarding a student teaching assignment caused him to quit a semester before graduation. “You’re old enough to make up your own mind,” his mother said.

She may have wondered about that after he joined the Army. Martin was sent to Kentucky for basic training but returned home almost immediately: Skin boils rendered him ineligible. The day he left, everyone on base was having their heads shaved, military-style.

“But I’m going home,” Martin said.

“You’re going home bald,” was the order.

He did.

Martin eventually graduated from UW-Oshkosh and started looking for teaching jobs. He landed in Wisconsin Dells, working as a coordinator between Native American families and public schools, with funding from the Johnson-O’Malley Act of 1934.

This was circa 1970, a challenging time. The Ho-Chunk were dissatisfied with the success rate of their students. There were disciplinary problems. The superintendent, meanwhile, was a rigid authoritarian.

Martin instituted a tutoring program after school and was pleasantly surprised when the students embraced it. He invited the superintendent in to observe. The next morning, the superintendent called Martin in.

“Did you see those kids?”

“Weren’t they great?” Martin said.

“They were wearing jeans!”

Martin, dismayed that appearance would trump substance, got up and walked out. He landed at UW-Milwaukee, where he developed and implemented the Native American Studies Program. Students who interacted with Martin in Milwaukee recall his energy and humor, and how his letting them know he had their backs gave them confidence.

From 1975 to 1978, Martin served as education coordinator for the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council. Subsequently, he worked as an analyst for the Council on Criminal Justice, helped the State Patrol increase its diversity, advised Gov. Thompson, and at one point spent a year in Washington, D.C., as director of the White House Conference on Indian Education.

Eventually, around 1997, Martin says, “With all of this experience, my tribe decided to hire me as a lobbyist.”

Madison builder Mike Schmudlach has known Martin for four decades and says, “Everyone who knows Buck loves him.”

Schmudlach, a member of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Board of Curators and co-author of a book on the Ho-Chunk called People of the Big Voice, says Martin moves easily in both white and Native American worlds and has often served as the glue to bring various factions together.

Always, things are leavened with humor. “If he teases you, it means he likes you,” Schmudlach said. He knew Martin liked him when Martin shook his head at Schmudlach’s name and began calling him “Mud Duck.”

It was from his lobbyist job that Martin retired in the spring. Of the issues he worked on, gaming ranks near the top. “It gave the tribes revenues and the ability to put it back into their communities. That’s why you’re seeing libraries and community centers.”

Asked about ongoing issues, Martin mentions his efforts to get tribal IDs broadly accepted as legal identification.

“I use mine,” he says, “and challenge anyone not to accept it.”

Do they?

Martin grins. “They don’t have to, but they do.”