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Mention Native Americans and the term might trigger images of the past. Movies and television have contributed to this timeworn imagery, along with tales of wild Indians in American literature and logos of sports teams that use Native caricatures as their mascots. Considering that more than 86,000 Native Americans live in Wisconsin and 60 percent of them live in cities and outside of their tribal lands, it’s possible that many Wisconsinites have met or know a Native person, or are familiar with at least one of the 11 federally recognized tribes in the state. But how much does the average American know about these indigenous people and how they differ from other communities of color?
Other than statistical data generated by some government agencies, information on present-day issues of Native Americans is hard to find. American Indians and Alaska Natives are frequently left out of studies and polls about race, mainly because of their small populations in comparison to other racial minorities. In Wisconsin, it took a controversy over treaty rights to prompt the passage of Act 31, a set of five statutes signed into law in 1989 that mandates school districts to teach and learn about the history, culture and sovereignty of the state’s tribes. However, it took more than 25 years for the law to gain traction.
A 2014 survey of public school districts showed that administrators and teachers needed more guidance in fulfilling the Act 31 requirements, especially regarding the issue of tribal sovereignty. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction launched the website wisconsinfirstnations.org in 2015 to make materials and information readily available. The curriculum, which attempts to define complex terms and shed light on these diverse tribes and their cultures, educates Wisconsin youth, but adults could use some basic lessons, too.
This primer features two stories — one on local efforts to educate the public and another on environmental issues — a list of things you should know, plus a smattering of details on tribes in the U.S. and Wisconsin. This package also includes key terms provided by Kids Forward, a local nonprofit that is developing a glossary of terms regarding Native Americans.
Note that as you read this basic guide, the terms Native American, American Indian and Native are used interchangeably. Also, Native is capitalized per the Native American Journalists Association Style Guide.
For some, this primer may spark interest in learning more about the indigenous people of this land. It may help people realize that Native people are not relics of the past but are a vibrant part of the state’s identity, culture and economy. It may help recast a contemporary image of Native Americans.