Walt Bresette died of a heart attack on Feb. 21, 1999, in Duluth, Minnesota, while visiting friends. Friends and supporters were numb from the news -- at the silencing of such a vibrant and strong voice for Native and Green causes, leaving us at only age 51. Even now Iím still greatly saddened by his loss from my life. Some days I wake up and Iím still angry that he was taken so young, that he and the doctors didnít care better for his health. The loss of his leadership, that captivating oratory, that down-to-earth touch with everyone he met, the tactical genius and his broad vision, this loss to the movement has left a hole so big, Esther Nahgahnub said, that it can only be filled by all of us.
Yet I am heartened and often overwhelmed by all the people Iíve talked to who were moved by his life and work. Though he is missing from the center of that circle which we can see, the many celebrations and remembrances of his life show how strong his presence still is among us. And though I met Walt in 1987, twelve years ago, and have been on the path with him since, I feel like I have been on the path with him forever.
The one shining moment in my public political life has been my work with Walt Bresette. I think he had a way of making lots of people feel that way. What role can you play, what work can you do, what skill provide, and letís do it--this was his lifeís blood. Whatever issue or cause it was, Walt could make you feel that "This is your shining moment"--if you come to the boat landings, if you stand in front of the earth movers trying to mine northern Wisconsin, if you think, in all your decisions, how will this affect seven generations from now.
Of course, this shining light is inside you anyway, but it was no small gift that Walter had to be able to see that and bring it out. He would ride into town in his res station wagon, set all this political stuff in motion -- protest, headline, allies, follow-up strategy --and then heíd ride out of town the next day, on to the next step in the big plan. Walt was a modern-day Chippewa nonviolent strategist crossing state-lines (and sovereign-nation lines) to incite critical thinking.
I never met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I did know Walt. Walter, like Dr. King, knew how to engage principalities and powers in non-violent chess moves that forced government and corporations to deal with the issues (sovereignty, environmental, cultural) they ignored or merely steamed over. Partly, this was because his strategies caught the news glare, sometimes in dramatic life-and-death ways--witnessing at violent boat landings or on the railroad tracks stopping sulfuric acid trains. But more importantly, the strategies Walt and tribal activists set in motion carried the possibility, the threat or promise, that Indian nations might act in sovereign ways (as LCO did in backing its first spearfishers); that wielding this mighty legal tool (sovereignty) on behalf of resource protection, a tool mere environmentalists do not have, indigenous activists provided the cutting edge. "If Native people act like sovereign people," he would rage, "then we will be sovereign people." And his message to the rest of us: If we Americans act like we live in a democracy, then America will become a democracy.
Like King, Walt knew the power of the spoken word--to move people, to buoy us in rough waters, to articulate the next steps and clear goals--and his best speeches embodied the marvelous skill of speaking from the heart while laying out for us our work--political, often dangerous, touching on the spiritual. One of his favorite rhetorical flourishes was to invigorate the current moment by speaking of a future time looking back at this historical moment: "One hundred and fifty years from now--Seven Generations--a story will be told how a long, long, long time ago at the turn of the second millennia, the Anishinabe and other indigenous people stepped forward to save the Great Lakes for future generations . . Ö If, as the elders have told us, we are our grandparentsí dream, then we must today begin dreaming of our grandchildren."
Walt was also sometimes known as the jolly lama of northern Wisconsin for his fine sense of humor. When he would work the powwows selling crafts, heíd say, "Sell trinkets, not treaties." Or heíd be speaking somewhere and be in the middle of a serious political analogy and start calling himself the Chubby Chippewa. Or heíd be M.C.-ing a powwow or Protect the Earth gathering and start telling stories about himself as Bubba. It was his way of balancing out the Walt-Bresette-the-legend stuff.
Walt was fearless with the media. This came from being a journalist in the beginning and from knowing, not only how to write, but how stories made the print, radio or TV news. I think, too, he saw what (little) passed for leadership in government these days and how lacking most news stories were in any analysis or awareness of what we had to prepare ourselves for in the next millennium. Why shouldnít people be stopping toxic trains, witnessing against the Klan, counting coup on top of mining machinery, visiting CEOís like any citizen who objects to poorly-conceived development plans? Why shouldnít that be the news of the day?
He welcomed arrests for his causes. Though the Feathergate arrest cost them their store in Duluth, he and Esther Nahgahnub won the landmark case for Anishinabe rights to gather migratory bird feathers in ceded territory. He risked arrest (and worse) like other spearers and witnesses during the boat landings and, later, in trying to mediate internal tribal confrontations at various Wisconsin and Michigan reservations. Once, when he came to a Green gathering at a Wisconsin state park, he drove in without paying an entrance fee, saying he was there to assert his rights to gather pine nuts in ceded territory. (The ranger and his superiors declined the opportunity to arrest Walt and try a precedent case in Anishinabe pine nuts harvesting.) Walt didnít gather for the nuts, he didnít spear for the fish. He speared for the politics. But the politics were the rights of his Lake Superior Chippewa to hunt and spear and gather in the Ceded Territories, and, in no small measure, these he helped preserve.
His issues werenít just the legal, up-front political ones, either. Walt helped every year do the Anishinabe Way gathering (the cultural/spiritual way back from drug and alcohol abuse). He was concerned with issues of domestic abuse and special education for children: he helped organize a support group for families of developmentally disabled children. The day after he led an anti-Klan rally in Ironwood, Michigan, the city there ran water on the streets where the Klan had been, to cleanse the area. Walt called it one of the most powerful public ceremonies heíd ever been a part of.
When he came to Milwaukee for Earth Day events, I liked to introduce him as a feminist Baptist preacher, if you can imagine such a thing. You could sense a vulnerability in him, often in his speeches, a recognition of his faults -- being that "pitiful creature" (which we all are) mentioned in Chippewa prayers. Heíd be talking indirectly about the need to make right some relationship in his personal life. One example I know: a loving father to Claudia, Katie and Robin, he knew the strains that prioritizing political work meant and how much this took away from his time with them.
But Walt understood, also, that it takes more than just being a good parent or teacher to make the future safe for our children.
But he would then transformed this (often) unspecified concern into this notion of a Right Relationship in the political sphere: What is the right relationship between a county and its word (the treaties)? What is the right relationship between tribal sovereignty and a kind of environmentalism that protects everyone, every species and sacred watershed? Waltís leadership was not the who-gets-what-piece-of -the-casino pie. If the waters are not fit to drink for our descendants, if the only way to insure energy supplies is to send our sons and daughters to die on otherís shores, if our own current coastlines go under water and our precious northwoods becomes an agricultural belt, how can we allow all these other distractions--the Presidentís sex life, the Governorís crony-ism--to pass for politics and leadership in the public arena now?
At Waltís wake, Sandy Lyon of Anishinabe Niijii told this story: When we used to gather, people would ask: how do we pull all our work together, where is the center of the circle made up of all that work and organizing that Walt and we have set in motion? We would have to gather people around a fire at our gathering and the fire would center us. There we could see each other, know all the elements of our movement. Now what? Walt is still in the center of all that. And all we have to do is just stand around the fire together now. When we see all the faces, we will know all the parts, see how it all fits together, that vision and the work.
All I can add to that is thanks, Walter. The blessings from your gifts never end.
Rick Whaley, March 1999
The above remembrance is From the "Walleye Warriors" book reprint. People can order
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