Media Report on Walt's Passage into the Spirit World

Bresette praised as peacemaker

Red Cliff activist remembered for putting words into action 

From The Daily Press, Ashland WI, 2/23/1999 

Rick Olivo 
The Daily Press 

Native American activist Walt Bresette once quoted a Chinese proverb, observing that a journey of a thousand miles began with a single step. 

He made the comment on a cold, miserable drizzling day outside of Ashland as he and a handful of other like-minded walkers trudged on their second day of a month-long journey to Madison and a rally on the steps of the Wisconsin capitol. They sought to to gain support for a constitutional amendment to protect air, water and other forms of common property known as the Seventh Generation Amendment, or the Common Property Amendment. The amendment would have required the government to consider the environmental impact of human activities into the seventh generation, a time frame used by Native American peoples for consideration in decision-making. The march was a small gesture, almost ignored by state officials and the media, but it was the kind of personal statement that was very much a part of Walt Bresette; putting his personal beliefs into personal action. It was the kind of example that has inspired hundreds of others to work for economic justice, for Native American treaty rights, for protection of the environment. 

Bresette's personal journey of activism came to an end Sunday when he died of an apparent heart attack in Duluth, while visiting friends. He was 51. 

For years, Bresette campaigned for environmental and treaty rights in the Lake Superior basin. One of the founders of the Red Cliff Cultural Center in 1983, he and Frank Koehn of Herbster helped establish the Lake Superior and later the Wisconsin Greens party as an environmental and social justice alternative to Republican and Democratic parties. 

"We decided that it was easier to start our own party than to try and make sense of the other two," said Koehn Monday. 

Koehn, an elementary school teacher in the South Shore School District said news of Bresette's death has come as "a real shocker." 

"There aren't too many things that have happened up here that haven't got Walt's footprints all over them," he said. "He kept us focused. He was truly a leader, a very great leader who knew what to do to prod people into action." 

Koehn said the loss of Bresette was more than the loss of a visionary leader. 

"He was a real partner. You have lots of friends, but very few partners, he said. "He was a major part of my life." 

Even those who did not always agree with Bresette's political agenda admired his commitment to the causes he believed in. 

"For a person who spoke so much from the heart, you would have thought it would never have given out," said State Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) Monday. 

Jauch said he and Bresette had a "strained" political relationship, but shared a deep personal relationship that extended back 34 years to when the two served together in the U.S. Army in Chitose, Hokkaido, Japan. 

"We shared a common spirit, common ideals," said Jauch. "In Japan, I spent a lot of evenings with him, sharing a few beers," he said. 

Jauch said he detected an anger at injustice within Bresette, whom he said sought a level of respect for himself and Native American people in general. He said he noted in recent years, Bresette played more of a peacemaker's role. 

"I sensed that Walt began to understand that some people in government were not as wrong as he may have categorized them to be," he said. 

"In later years, he was more active on a personal level," agreed Koehn. "He said 'Ya gotta come home and take care of your back yard. Everything we have to do has to be done right here in the Lake Superior bioregion.'" 

Bresette was a co-founder of the Witness for Non-violence organization, a member of the Midwest Treaty network, the Anishinabe Niijii, a mining watchdog group, Lake Superior and Wisconsin Greens political party. He was also an author, co-writing with Rick Whaley the book "Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth." The book tells Bresette's view of the interracial alliance that rose up in the 1980s at Wisconsin boat landings to protect Chippewa spearfishermen exercising their court-approved treaty rights. 

Bresette also went to court to defend his right to sell art objects containing the feathers of migratory birds. He won a landmark decision in federal court confirming that Chippewa Indians have the right to hunt and fish, gather and sell products from areas included in 19th century treaties with the United States. 

At various times he was involved in protests over sulfide mining near Ladysmith, protesting a Ku Klux Klan rally in Ironwood and, with the Witness for Non-violence group, at many lake landings. Yet he was also concerned with other issues; domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse. 

He was a man who was highly thought of in his home community of Red Cliff, said a long-time friend of Bresette's Bayfield County Clerk Tom Gordon. 

"We went to school together, played together, fought together and graduated together," he said. "He was a friend to Indian people all over, and to the environment. Indian people and the environment will both miss him." 

Gordon said his legacy was bringing back the seventh generation ideal, an ideal he lived by. 

"He didn't do things for money. He lived very prudently. He did for people because he cared, that's what made him special." 

As deeply as he was committed to his agenda of social activism, Bresette was described as a loving person who cherished his family. 

"Even though I didn't always agree with his philosophy, when it was a family function, we could leave that stuff at the door. We were brothers," said one of Bresette's six brothers, Randy Bresette. "I didn't understand 90 percent of what he was doing, but I respected him and what he was trying to accomplish. He respected my way of life too." 

According to Randy, the outflow of sympathy since Walt's death became known has been staggering. 

"You wouldn't believe the number of phone calls we have received. Walt had a huge extended family of friends, and now they they are all calling us. 

"It has been one call after another," said another of Walt's brothers, Joe Bresette. "It is amazing to me to see how much he was respected, how many people are affected by his death." 

Koehn said there was a simple explanation for this outpouring of emotion. 

"Walt was always willing to share his world, his culture. He broke down the barriers, opened doors for countless people to get in touch with each other. There is a big hole, a big void in northern Wisconsin to fill," he said. 

Jauch agreed. 

"I think that regardless of whether you agreed with him or not, or even if you liked him, northern Wisconsin has has lost a spark, a spark of conviction. 

However, Gordon's view is that Bresette is not really gone. 

"He will be in the wind and in the rain. Indian people and others will always know Walt is there. That is a good thing," he said.