"He was like the north star," a friend says, "he held up the sky over
northern Wisconsin and the people followed him."
Sunday, February 21, 1999
Walt Bresette, an Anishinabe peace and justice advocate died this morning Feb. 21 from a heart attack while he was visiting some friends in Duluth. A member of the Loon Clan, the 51-year-old Red Cliff Chippewa defended treaty rights and fought to prevent metallic sulfide mining, and to prevent acid from a mining operation being shipped across northern Wisconsin.
Bresette was a US Army veteran. He was a co-founder of the Witness for Nonviolence, Midwest Treaty Network, Anishinaabe Niijii, Lake Superior Greens, Wisconsin Greens, and was an inspiration to many others.
He was an elegant speaker and writer. Walt Bresette along with Rick Whaley wrote "Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth" The book tells the story about the interracial alliance that rose up in the 1980s at Wisconsin boat landings to protect Chippewa spearfishing, sovereignty, the land, and the water.
Walter and his wife Cass Joy ran a native crafts and art business the Buffalo Bay Trading Company on the Red Cliff Chippewa Reservation until a few years ago. Their children are Claudia, Katie, and Robin.
At a meeting in Tampa, Florida during the 1980s, Walt received a special gift. The gift came from an alert and agile old woman. It was the war club belonging to the Sauk leader Black Hawk who more than a hundred and fifty years ago fought the US Army trying to move him and his people from their homeland.
Walt Bresette carried Blawk Hawk's war club to the ceremonies, to the boat landings, to the mining protests, and to the schools and churches until his death Sunday morning.
Wisconsin State Journal
Tuesday, February 23, 1999
by Ron Seely, Environment reporter
Walt Bresette, a Wisconsin Chippewa and a fiery, eloquent activist in tribal and environmental issues, has died.
Bresette, 51, died of a heart attack Sunday in Duluth, Minn. A member of the Red Cliff Chippewa band, Bresette was a longtime defender of Chippewa treaty rights and an outspoken opponent of hard- rock mining in Wisconsin.
Since the mid-1980s when the Wisconsin Chippewa started to fight to re-establish their off-reservation treaty rights, Bresette's reputation as a firebrand has grown. He was among the tribal leaders at North Woods boat landings in the late 1980s as the Chippewa speared walleye in the face of sometimes violent protests.
Bresette was active in bringing non-Indians to both tribal and environmental causes. He was a co-founder of Witness for Nonviolence, Midwest Treaty Network, Anishinaabe Niijii, Lake Superior Greens, and Wisconsin Greens.
In the years after the successful effort to re- establish the Chippewas' right to fish and hunt off their reservations, Bresette and Rick Whaley were co-authors of "Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth."
Zoltan Grossman, a longtime activist and friend, said Bresette was one of the few during the spearfishing protests who understood the issue's economic and environmental underpinnings.
"Even as the Chippewa spearers and the white anglers were in conflict over treaty rights," he said, "Walt understood that they really had more in common than they had differences. He felt the people of northern Wisconsin had to defend their clean environment and their mom-and-pop businesses together, or both would be lost to outside corporations."
Bresette was fond of saying at the time that unless anglers and others and the Chippewa worked together to fight mining and other corporations, "the only thing that's left is you and I fighting over some poison fish."
It was Bresette's efforts, Grossman said, that led to the unlikely anti-mining coalition of hunters, anglers, small town business owners, environmental groups and Wisconsin Indian tribes.
In the summer of 1996, Bresette stood with others on a railroad track in northern Wisconsin to successfully block rail shipments of sulfuric acid to the Copper Range Co. mine in Upper Michigan.
Grossman said that image of Bresette on the railroad track is one that he'll always remember. "It's definitely how he'd like to be remembered," Grossman said.
Bresette is survived by his wife, Cass Joy, and his children, Claudia, Katie, and Robin.
Hundreds of people attended Walt's wake in Red Cliff; friends flew in from as far away as California, Vermont, and England to honor Walt and his life. The funeral was on February 25 in Bayfield. After a long caravan back to Red Cliff, Walt was laid to rest in a spot overlooking the Lake Superior that he loved, and the Madeline Island that was the birthplace of the nation that he dreamt of healing and unifying.
We have received dozens of condolences and remembrances from many of the groups and individuals that Walt has inspired across North America and the world (see link below). A memorial fund has been set up for Walt Bresette, to help his family pay for funeral expenses. Checks can be made out to Joe Bresette, and sent to:
Rt. 1, Box 117
Bayfield WI 54814
The tribute below was originally written a few days after Walter's funeral. It was shared with only a few people who knew or knew of Walter. My few years' acquaintance with this great man constituted a short period when compared with the long friendships of many others who knew him. And yet, Walter remains the one person who has most influenced my life.
A WARRIOR PASSES
July 4, 1947 - February 21, 1999)
On Sunday, February 21, 1999, Walter Bresette, peace advocate, community and environmental activist, and defender of Anishinabe (Chippewa) treaty rights, passed away at the age of fifty-one. He was laid to rest the following Thursday at St. Francis Cemetery on the Red Cliff Indian Reservation. Six hundred people, Indian and non-Indian, came to pay their respects to this man as he took his final journey into the Great Mystery.
It was a scene which at once pained the heart and stirred the soul. Nearly a hundred people spoke at the wake; many were friends, some were professional acquaintances, others simply people who admired and appreciated what this man had labored to achieve all his life. The understanding which emerged was that Walter was many things to many people: a warrior dedicated to peace and inter-racial harmony; a tireless advocate for the environment; a defender of the traditional values and treaty rights of indigenous peoples. But most importantly, Walter was a man devoted unconditionally to his human relationships, to his role as father, as brother and as friend. And perhaps it was this genuine humanity, this ability to connect deeply with others, which stood out as the quality most cherished by those who knew and loved Walter. As an old ally and life-long friend stated tearfully, "Walter's passing created such a big void that it took all six-hundred of us to fill it."
Walter immersed himself into many worthy causes, but he never left a job unfinished. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, when racial hatred directed at tribal spear-fishing threatened to engulf northern Wisconsin, Walter co-founded the Witness for Non-violence, whose members, with Walter leading them, engaged in the effective, non-violent documenting and defusing of racial violence at the boat landings. When metallic sulfide mining threatened the ecosystem of the state, Walter helped organize such environmental activist groups as the Midwest Treaty network, the Wisconsin Greens, and Anishinabe Niijii, a mining watchdog group. While these stand as his most salient accomplishments, Walter also labored steadfastly to eliminate substance abuse in the northern Wisconsin area, to help the disabled, and to assist troubled young people. A friend of mine who met Walter twice commented that he always seemed to be planting seeds of goodness wherever he went. After news of his death came, this friend asked me to bear as her special gift a handful of seeds, seeds from a plant her grandmother had grown years before. With the family's permission, I placed those seeds beside Walter, that he may continue planting goodness in the next world.
There were many stories told of Walter Bresette, stories about his bravery, his integrity, his eloquence, his wit, his humor, and his compassion. A man who had stood beside Walter on the boat landings recalled his fearlessness in the face of danger, as well as his compassion for the very people who hurled racial epithets and violent threats at him. A woman who had joined Walter in opposing sulfide mining in Wisconsin recounted how he scaled the security fence at the Ladysmith mine, and, in symbolic protest, waved Black Hawk's warclub (given to him as a gift) at the buildings on site. The co-author of Walter's book, Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth, spoke of his insight, his wisdom, and his eloquence in both the spoken and the written word. There were also many honors paid to this gentle warrior. Jim Northrup, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and a long-time friend of Walter's, recited two award-winning poems in his honor. A large bouquet of flowers from a United States Congressman, together with a hand written note of condolence, sat among many similar gifts beside Walter's casket. A contingent of Canadian Ojibwa came to honor him for his work in uniting the tribes across Lake Superior. The Anishinabe Ogitchida, warrior society of the Lake Superior Chippewa, lit the sacred fires and kept them burning for four days.
One close friend of Walter's told me that a little known fact about him was that he was very much a patriot. He loved his country, his beautiful native America, and it was this patriotism which in part spurred his loving defense of the earth. He was born on the Fourth of July, and served in the United States Armed Forces thirty-four years ago. He wished deeply to preserve the land and water for the generations of Americans to come, and among his most recent projects was the "Seventh Generation Amendment," a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution which would protect the air, water and earth as common property for future generations.
In addition to being a writer and activist, Walter was an accomplished artist. A graduate of the Chicago School of Art, he had designed the logo of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. My mother, an artist herself, still remembers her dinner with Walter and I in the winter of 1997. She smiles when she recalls Walter's impressive knowledge of art history.
A child of a Roman Catholic household, who in his adulthood had embraced the traditional ways of the Anishinabe, Walter was buried with a mixture of Catholic and indigenous rites. A Franciscan priest quoted from the Book of Luke, and, paraphrasing the words of the Centurion who had stood guard over Jesus' tomb, gestured towards the casket and said, "Surely this was a good man." The Ogitchida, led by their bravest, Butch Stone, gathered around Walter's casket. Holding up the Protect the Earth staff which had symbolized so much of Walter Bresette, the Ogitchida sang the traditional Ojibwa warrior's song in his honor. Later, along with the leader of the Canadian Ojibwa, the Ogitchida sang four travelers' songs to comfort their principal spokesman on his last journey.
Walter Bresette was a great man, and, like all great people, he was sometimes viewed as a controversial figure. There were those who could not comprehend him, some who even feared him. It is perhaps human nature to fear those whom one cannot understand, and some could not understand this man's passionate and sincere dedication to the causes of peace and the protection of the natural world. Yet to the Anishinabe Ogitchida who risk their lives to protect the land and water they revere, to the environmental activists who struggle to preserve the pristine beauty of the northwoods and Lake Superior, to the peace advocates who work unceasingly to end violence and racial strife, and to the indigenous peoples struggling to uphold their traditions, Walter was a staunch ally, an eloquent spokesperson, and a cherished friend.
For me, Walter was both friend and mentor. I first met him in connection with a Clean Air Act enforcement action which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had brought against the Copper Range Company. It was Walter who taught me about the treaty-subsistence rights of the Anishinabe people, about the mercury contamination from sulfide smelters which threaten our fragile ecosystem, and about how those ancient Anishinabe rights could be used to combat the poisoning of the environment. Without his inspiration, my work on this case would have been different, somehow lacking and hollow. The Agency awarded me a Bronze Medal for my efforts on this case. Yet in a deeper sense, the medal always belonged to Walter.
Few remember that Walter at one time held a position in connection with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 1996, he served as chair of the Indigenous Peoples Subcommittee to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. While he held this post for less than a year, he did more to advance the cause of environmental protection in this short time than many have accomplished in a life-time of service. Walter resigned this position in protest when the Agency authorized a pilot-scale solution mining project in White Pine, Michigan. He proceeded to amass the largest alliance of environmental activism the northwoods had ever seen, working tirelessly to reveal the potential long-term hazards of this unprecedented technology, as well as the immediate concerns over the related transportation of sulfuric acid. In so doing, Walter helped ensure that a thorough review of the environmental risks associated with this project would be undertaken.
At the funeral, I asked permission to give Walter, as a posthumous honor, one of my few cherished possessions: the Bronze Medal conferred upon me by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for my work on the Copper Range Clean Air Act enforcement action. With the blessings of his family and friends, I gave to him that which he so richly deserved. And yet it seemed a paltry award considering the depth and breadth of all this man had done in his lifetime.
In the year and a half since his passage, I have often pondered why a human being like Walter, who spent his life planting seeds of good everywhere, should die such an untimely death. Perhaps it is because people like him have learned the truth, have walked the good path, and are ready to return home.
Many will always remember Walter as a great leader. He was in many ways the very soul of the Native environmental movement, and his oratory was that movement's strongest and clearest voice. As his dear friend, Ms. Sandy Lyons, told us at the wake, "He was like the North Star. People followed him. He had a universal heart -- he was able to reach people passionately and touch their souls." Now he has made his final journey to the Great Mystery.
Six hundred people came to pay their respects to Walter Bresette. The sheer number is testimony to this kind, caring man's influence, and to the respect, appreciation and love felt for him.
Important: Any groups or individuals planning memorials for Walt Bresette, or publishing his writings, should first inform and consult with his family: Cass, Katie, Claudia, and Robin. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Midwest Treaty Network
"Memorials, radio show, poster"
Obituary: Walter Bresette, protector of water, air, earth
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Bresette fought for Indian causes
Feb. 23, 1999 from Ashland Daily Press Walt Bresette.
Walt Bresette on the 7th Generation Initiative
Walleye Warriors: The Chippewa Treaty Rights Story by Rick Whaley and Walt Bresette
Midwest Treaty Network's Contents page
Seventh Generation Amendment http://www.Brain-Box.com/commonproperty/cp-webpage.html
return to Midwest Treaty Network's Contents page