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Oneida Nation’s Gollnick talks tribal sovereignty and history with SNC Political Science class

Government Administrative Office

Oneida Nation photo

Oneida Nation Strategist William Gollnick (right) speaks to a St. Norbert College Political Science class September 14, 2022. Gollnick provided information about the Nation’s sovereignty and touched upon various topics that impact tribes and their relationships with local, state, and federal governments.

Government Administrative Office

On an invitation from St. Norbert College Political Science Professor and former Wisconsin State Representative Amanda Stuck, Oneida Nation Strategist Bill Gollnick took the opportunity September 14 to briefly discuss Oneida tribal sovereignty and history and how the tribe interacts with local, state, and federal legislators with Stuck’s class.

Gollnick, who’s education and 40-year career with the Nation brings immeasurable experience across a number of administrative and legislative capacities, began by speaking about the diversity of the 574 federally recognized tribes currently inhabiting North America. “When Columbus arrived there were actually many, many more First Nations,” Gollnick said. “We are a more diverse people than the nations of Europe, and there are still 12 different language families that are spoken by Native Americans in what is now the continental United States. Those languages are as different as German is to Swahili, and most tribes are proud of the fact that their languages are still spoken because the foundations of who they are rests with those languages.”

Speaking next about how Spanish Crown advisor Francisco de Vitoria was finally able to convince Europeans to recognize Native Americans as human beings in the 1500s, Gollnick explained that this set the groundwork for future treaty-making relationships. “These treaties weren’t only important to Europeans and the tribes, but between European nations as well because once a treaty was made here, it could be argued in the European courts without a war being started here.”

Wanting to share knowledge that might shape student’s understanding about how various cultures live and think, Gollnick spoke of conceptual differences in the way people see the world. “When we look at the sky and see the stars, the constellations are different,” Gollnick said. “The Lakota look at Orion and see the hand of God, the Haudenosaunee see the Seven Dancers returning to the horizon which tells us it’s time for our Midwinter Ceremony to take place. The very foundations of how we see ourselves in the world are unique. I share this because we’re not just people coming together for the purpose of making treaties and governments, we’re people that had to figure out other people who had very different ways of seeing the world. Therefore, many of those early encounters were extremely challenging.”

When Benjamin Franklin was assigned to liaise between the newly formed Albany Congress and the Iroquois Confederacy, he learned about an upper and lower house, and he learned about a government that was made up of the people, Gollnick said. “He learned of checks and balances, but he also saw a form of government that recognized the role of women as much as men,” Gollnick explained. “Europeans had a difficult time with this. For instance, with the Treaty of Canandaigua, the Seneca women were extremely articulate in their position in support of the Iroquois, however the American women were not allowed to speak.

“We are a body made up of men and women with defined, but complementary, roles,” Gollnick continued. “Our roles are not superior from one gender to another. In Europe it was always white men who had that responsibility, but in Indian Country the tribal members were the decision makers who collectively knew what was important for them. They understood their decisions impacted all of them, so this was truly a government of the people in a way that was unlike anything contemplated in Europe at the time. Ben Franklin said, ‘If these savages can have a government like this, why can’t we?’”

Gollnick spoke on the eventual advent of Native American boarding schools, the mission of which was to strip Indian children of their cultural belief systems. “My grandfather went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Pennsylvania) while my mother went to Flandreau, South Dakota,” Gollnick said. “Flandreau was one of 406 boarding schools across the country based on the Carlisle model, so we had children going to these places and being reprogrammed. Those children had a very difficult time fitting in after they returned home.”

Speaking on the direction Indian policy took across the next several decades, Gollnick explained these deliberate legislative actions taken on behalf of the United States Government led to the cultural decline of Native Americans. “In 1970 Time magazine reported that the first American had become the last American. We were behind in employment, land, and virtually everything. The policies that had evolved had essentially taken everything from us. So, it was time for changes, and there were some dramatic changes,” Gollnick said.

President Richard Nixon also came up with the concept of Indian Self-Determination in 1970. “The idea behind this was that tribes, devastated by Indian policies up to this point, would be able to bring themselves back through successful future direction,” Gollnick explained. “Nixon just turned the policy around overnight. Suddenly, treaties and Indian rights were going to be recognized again and we could hunt, fish, and gather in ways other folks couldn’t.”

While these actions were welcome in Indian Country, they led to anti-Indian groups coming out in spades, Gollnick said. “All of these groups believed Indians were getting special treatment and that they needed to be contained and controlled. All the tribes were doing was what the president had authorized, and doing what made sense for them to generate revenue to rebuild their economies, cultures, and society.”

The 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act downsized the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the money that was left over was shared with tribes to begin to provide their own services. “Since the federal government had done such a poor job of meeting their obligations, the money was now going directly to the tribes so they could take care of these things themselves,” Gollnick said. “Suddenly tribes are establishing their own police forces, schools, health centers, housing, the list goes on.”

The introduction of Indian gaming helped turn the page for the Oneida Nation and other tribes across Wisconsin and the country. “Gaming became the foundation that made up for the fact that tribes weren’t getting the federal dollars we were supposed to, and it was going to give us the capacity to truly be self-determining. Remember, Nixon’s message was around self-determination, but you can’t be self-determining if you’re being told by the federal government what you’re going to do, what your goals are, and what reports should look like. That’s no more than reacting to a government telling you what you’re supposed to believe. That’s not self-determination. Self-determination requires that you be self-sustaining.”

In the 1980s, Gollnick was selected by then-Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson to the American Indian Language and Culture Education Board. “This board, made up of 15 Native folks nominated by their tribes, was to advise the governor and legislature on things happening across the board in Indian Country,” Gollnick explained. “We tried to get people to look at things in a way that brought some real results, to really research and understand what the real issues at hand were. Legislators and educators weren’t doing it, and unfortunately in that vacuum all these anti-Indian groups were getting all the ink with their messages, and most of it was outrageous and unfounded.

“Most Americans believed that Indians existed until about the 1850s, hung out in teepees, chased buffalo, and then they went away,” Gollnick said. “Indians weren’t part of modern history, we weren’t part of contemporary America, we weren’t people who had intergovernmental agreements or treaties with the United States. We were just a bunch of folks.”

As a result, the American Indian Language and Culture Education Board recommended the State of Wisconsin put together a process whereby schools would educate children about the 11 tribes and bands in the state, as well as their history and culture. “Those concepts were built into a budget bill that ultimately became Act 31,” Gollnick said. “Act 31 is still in existence today and most people understand it to be an Indian Education Bill. In Wisconsin we have local control, so the individual school boards decide what is going to be taught in the schools. So we provided as much information as we possibly could and gathered people to develop informational pieces that could become curriculum schools could incorporate.

“From 1989 forward, Act 31 continues to function in schools, and I believe it’s had an impact. I’m pleased that there are many people now who have come through the Wisconsin Public School System that know something about the tribes and understand the dynamics that were at play.”

As Indian gaming continued to gain traction across the country, more and more state governments began to see the advantages of partnering with tribes. “When the tribes began hiring more and more people who weren’t tribal, we now had a whole bunch of people out there who relied on tribal resources to provide opportunity for them as well. The states recognized these employees are paying state taxes, they’re buying things, and it’s impacting the economy. Indian gaming is now the largest employer in every county where there is a tribe, and that’s a huge impact on the state overall. That’s something I’m not sure we fully appreciated when we first started down this road, but it’s a horse we rode, and it’s worked quite well.”

To watch and hear Mr. Gollnick’s full presentation, please visit the following link: