Minneapolis Star-Tribune protector of water, air, earth
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Bresette fought for Indian causes
The Daily Press Bresette praised as peacemaker
Duluth News-Tribune Anishinabe activist Walt Bresette dies

Obituaries: Walter Bresette,

protector of water, air, earth

March 5, 1999
Lucy Y. Her
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Walter Bresette was a champion of American Indian treaties and an environmental activist who led campaigns for land, air and water quality around Lake Superior.

For three decades, he fought government, courts and big companies. He said in recent years that he opposed anyone who wanted to take away what belonged to the Lake Superior Chippewa: land, fish, heritage, culture and religion.

Bresette, of Bayfield, Wis., belonged to the Red Cliff Band. He died Feb. 21, apparently of a heart attack. He was 51. Since his death, a fire has been burning in front of his house to honor his memory.

"He loved Lake Superior," said his friend Susan Stanich of Kauai, Hawaii. "This was a man who was in favor of peace and nonviolence. There was absolutely no racist bone in his body."

During the funeral last week, Esther Nahgahnub, a friend, looked at the people around her and said that she wouldn't have known anyone there if not for Bresette.

"Everybody there had a piece of Walter inside them," she said. "The grief was so intense."

A Web site has been created to collect stories about Bresette for a book and CD to carry on his message and to celebrate him, said his friend Mike Hazard of St. Paul. The site is http://www.protecttheearth.com

Jim Northrup of the Fond du Lac band near Duluth said he and Bresette became friends in the 1980s when they worked together to protect Indian treaties.

"Walter was a trickster," he said. "He could take the most serious situation we were facing and make a joke out of it. But because of Walter's actions and ideas, the next generation of Anishinaabeg will have at least four Walts to do what he was doing. He's gone, but his ideas will live on."

In 1991, Bresette and Nahgahnub went on trial for apparently violating federal regulations for selling -- in Bresette's Duluth store -- dream catchers made of wood, sinew, sweet grass and feathers from Canada geese, blue geese and red-tailed hawks.

But Bresette said then that he was protected by treaties dating to 1825 that gave him and other tribes the right to gather and use the feathers. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson agreed.

"I had no doubt what I was doing was legal," Bresette said then.

Hazard said Bresette was a man of vision.

In Bresette's front yard sits a 50-foot-long boat he was going to turn into a classroom for children. It was going to be used to navigate the water and teach children about the air, water and sunlight, and how to protect them.

Bresette called it a homeless ship that "has killed its share of fish and broken many hearts and homes," Hazard said.

Nahgahnub, a member of the Fond du Lac Band, said, "Yes, Walter left a big hole, but look at all of us who are left that will fill the hole."

Bresette is survived by sons Nicholas of Peoria, Ill., and Robin of Madison, Wis.; daughters Claudia and Katy, both of Madison, and brothers Stanley and Joseph of the Red Cliff Reservation in Wisconsin; James of Wausau, Wis.; Dennis of Ashland, Wis.; Randolph of Bayfield, and Richard LaFernier of Warrensburg, Mo.


Bresette fought for Indian causes

By Eldon Knoche
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

February 23, 1999

Walter Bresette, a widely known Chippewa activist, died of a heart attack Sunday while friends in Duluth, Minn. He was 51.

Bresette, who lived on the Red Cliff Ojibwe Reservation north of Bayfield, made his living speaking and writing about American Indian causes.

"Although he was never elected to a leadership position, he was undeniably a true leader," said a friend, Eric Schubring, producer of the morning program on radio station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation.

Bresette co-authored "Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth," a chronicle of Chippewa sovereignty and the dispute over Indian fishing and hunting rights in northern Wisconsin.

He led a 1996 blockade in Ashland County against a train carrying sulfuric acid to the White Pine copper mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The acid was to be used to test a new mining process. For a time, 10 rail cars of the acid were stopped from crossing property of the Bad River Chippewa tribe. The mine eventually was closed.

"Walt had a great gift for understanding and articulating. (He had) insight into the struggles of native people in this region and nationally," said Schubring, who met him in the early 1980s when Bresette was WOJB news director.

Bresette was with Sandy Lyon in Anishinabe Niijii, or Chippewa Friend, a treaty-rights support group and anti-metallic sulfuric mining organization in Springbrook, near Hayward.

Born July 4, 1947, in Hayward to Henry and Blanche Bresette, he attended the Chicago Art Institute school in the 1970s, Lyon said. He also spent four years in the U.S. Army, much of that time in Japan.

As chairman of the Indigenous Issues Subcommittee of the Environmental Justice Advisory Council of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he was a co-founder of the Midwest Treaty Network and Witness for Nonviolence, and during the past year helped develop the Great Lakes Regional Indigenous Environmental Network.

He often spoke out on treaty rights and argued against American Indians selling their rights.

For some years he and his former wife, Cass Joy, operated the Buffalo Bay Trading Co., a native crafts and art business on the Red Cliff Reservation. Bresette would say, "Sell trinkets not treaties."

At a meeting in Tampa, Fla., in the 1980s, he was given a war club. The club had belonged to the Sauk Chief Black Hawk, who a century and a half earlier had fought a spirited but losing war in Wisconsin against the U.S. Army.

Bresette carried the symbolic club with him to the spearfishing boat landings, where he organized peace vigils.

Twice divorced, he is survived by four children, Claudia, Katy and Robin, all of Madison, and Nicholas of Peoria, Ill.; and by six brothers, Stanley and Joseph of Red Cliff, James of Wausau, Dennis of Ashland, Randolph of Bayfield and Richard LaFernier Jr. of Warrensburg, Mo.


Bresette praised as peacemaker
Red Cliff activist remembered for putting words into action

February 23, 1999
ashpress@win.bright.net (Ashland Daily Press)
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.


Anishinabe activist Walt Bresette dies
Leaves legacy of environmentalism

By Steve Kuchera
Duluth News-Tribune staff writer

Longtime Anishinabe activist Walt Bresette crossed to the other side Sunday morning, Feb. 21, dying of an apparent heart attack while visiting friends in Duluth.

"He was a part of the sky that held up northern Wisconsin," said Sandy Lyons, who knew and worked with Bresette for years. "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."

Bresette, 51, was a well-known environmental and treaty rights activist from the Red Cliff Band of Chippewa. He helped found the Red Cliff Cultural Institute in 1983, the Lake Superior Greens in 1985 and was involved with the Midwest Treaty Network, a coalition of local groups supporting treaty rights.

"He always thought that treaty rights were the rights of both the Anishinabe and the non-Indians," said Lyons of Springbrook, Wis. "That they were really for the protection of this land, this air and this water that is all of ours."

Between 1987 and 1992, while Indians and non-Indians clashed over tribal spearfishing in Wisconsin, Bresette trained hundreds of people as "witnesses for nonviolence." When whites gathered at boat landings, some throwing rocks and racial jeers at spear-fishing Indians, Bresette and his witnesses were there to document it.

Bresette and the witnesses were also in Ironwood, Mich., in 1997 when the KKK held a rally there.

"Walt brought people to the dinner table together, to the boat landings, to the railroad tracks and to wherever they had to be to work together," said longtime friend Frank Koehn of Herbster. "It's work that needs to go on, but what a shock."

Bresette once said his activism may have led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to seize several art items containing feathers from migratory birds at his Miller Hill Mall store in 1989. Bresette pleaded innocent and went to court to defend what he believed was his treaty-given right to sell the items. In a far-reaching decision, a U.S. District Court judge agreed, ruling that Chippewa have the right to hunt, fish, gather and sell items in treaty-covered areas.

Bresette, Koehn and Lyons worked together on the annual Protect the Earth Gatherings, usually a weekend event each spring. Last year, however, to mark Wisconsin's 150th anniversary as a state, Bresette and others marched from Red Cliff to the state Capitol in Madison. One reason for the journey was to gather support for a constitutional amendment to protect air, water and other forms of common property. The proposal is also called the "Seventh Generation Amendment."

"The Indian way of thinking is that when you make decisions in your life, you should think about their impacts on the next seven generations," Lyons said. "That is the way Walter thought."

Although Bresette was best known for his work on treaty rights and the environment, he did far more, his friends said. He helped organize a support group for families with developmentally disabled children. He worked with teachers to develop curriculums on issues such as global warming. He was concerned about family violence, the Y2K issue, and helped people caught in alcohol and drug abuse.

"That kind of thing Walt isn't known for," Koehn said. "But he was right there all the time working on those issues on a personal basis with people." "He believed in what I am doing here; he would tell people about it," said Maryellen Baker of Lac Courte Oreilles, who uses traditional Anishinabe values and concepts to help people deal with substance abuse and mental illness. For about 15 years, Bresette worked with Baker at her annual Anishinabe Way conference.

"He was a fun-loving, traditional man who believed in life," said Baker. "It's hard to believe," she said of Bresette's death. "I just talked to him a week ago. I didn't know he was sick or anything. I didn't expect Walt to be sick."

A funeral date has not been announced. Bresette is survived by four children and six brothers.

Lyons said Bresette suffered a heart attack several years ago. "He had an idea this was coming," she said. "He wanted people to celebrate his life and passing in their own way. I know he would want people to go to the water and spend a few minutes, thinking about what it means to them and how to keep it going for the future generations."

Koehn talked to a tribal elder Sunday after hearing of Bresette's passing. "She gave me good words," he said. "She said `Walt is on the other side working now.' I believe that to be true. We have a hole to fill, a void, but we'll get through this."

Copyright 1999 Duluth News-Tribune


Death of Walt Bresette
Condolences & Remembrances
Walt Bresette on the 7th Generation Initiative
Walleye Warriors: The Chippewa Treaty Rights Story by Rick Whaley and Walt Bresette

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