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Policing forums seek to build bridges
Efforts seek public input for Ashland's police future




Native American distrust of police is the legacy of more than a century of colonialism that amounts to historical trauma, Bad River tribal member Dylan Bhizikins Jennings said.

Jennings has served as a tribal council member, a Northland College lecturer in Ojibwe, and is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. He spoke earlier this month at the first of four public forums the city is holding to discuss how police services are delivered to the community — and what the community expects of its police.

The forums — the second is scheduled for Wednesday at Ashland's band shell — were developed as the nation was grappling with its relationship with police following the murder last summer by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, and subsequent demonstrations across the country.

Most of those demonstrations focused on minority mistrust of police — mistrust borne of the disproportionate arrests and violence that minorities historically have suffered at the hands of authorities.

Jennings said he wants local police to understand that the same dynamics are in play in the Bay Area, where tribal communities have gone through generational trauma because of efforts to force Native Americans to assimilate into the non-native community.

"Government-led assimilatory practices have contributed to some of what we might see as fear or distrust of police officers or other authority figures," he said.

Jennings also spoke about discrimination against Native Americans, and police bigotry that often resulted in violence against Indians.

He said helping the majority community understand historical practices like removing Indian children from their families and sending them to boarding schools where both the use of their native language and the practice of their traditional religion were both forbidden was an important first step.

"Having community members have a stronger understanding of this history would be a good way to start these dialogues, so that we understand that in order to create equitable solutions, we have to understand everybody's shared history, and where people are coming from, especially our tribal communities," he said.

Ashland Mayor Debra Lewis, who organized the Ashland Policing Task Force that is hosting the forums, said her goal is to create a method for hearing and understanding local concerns on the issues of racial justice and law enforcement.

"Obviously we are not going to solve historical events, but we are trying to work on building bridges for the future, build the relationships between tribal and municipal governments, minorities and municipal government and influence attitudes of local law enforcement," she said.

Lewis said the process included an educational component as well as bringing together people who ordinarily don't talk to each other.

"Really the point is to listen to each other, to challenge our biases, learn from each other in a way that will help our community to grow and adapt," she said.

Lewis believes Floyd's murder inspired efforts to establish a dialogue with the Ashland area's largest group of minorities, Native Americans. She said Indian participants in the policing task force told the group that non-Indians didn't understand their history.

"They said it's not taught in our schools, and that we don't have any context for why Native people are mistrustful of the police," Lewis said.

That led to Jennings's presentation, first before the task force, and then at the first forum, which was held online in a virtual setting.

Lewis hopes the forums are the beginning of a process of one side listening to the other and vice versa, with all sides listening to different voices.

One of the other voices comes from the Ashland Police Department where Chief Bill Hagstrom has been involved in the task force since its beginning. Hagstrom said he didn't attend the first forum because he didn't want his presence to discourage an open discussion.

"People might want to come and say their piece, but they might not want to say it if I am sitting there," he said. "What we did is to have another member of the department, Lt. Brandon Marten, there."

Hagstrom said the presentation made by Marten at the first forum was intended to show that the department is making important strides towards building better understandings between the two communities.

"A lot of it is getting police to understand why people might have a reaction to them — that they may have preconceived notions of what police did 30 or 40 years ago. A lot of it is just building trust," he said.

Hagstrom said in addition to an opportunity to listen to the concerns of the Native American community, the forum gave police the chance to talk about the strides they were making to make the department more responsive.

"Some of it is to reassure the public that Wisconsin has rules to prevent chokeholds and strangleholds. There are things like that that we just don't do here, period," he said. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers for example, has just signed a "duty to intervene" law that requires police officers to step in if another officer is acting inappropriately in an arrest or other action.

Hagstrom said that the department also has placed strong emphasis on providing training for matters like de-escalation of crisis situations — an effort that will continue as the department gets more training and builds closer relationships with the people it is intended to serve.

"A lot of it is just the willingness to listen and talk," Hagstrom said.

Jennings said despite the difficult history between the two communities, he remains optimistic that the gulf between Native Americans and the non-native community can be bridged.

"I think there are always opportunities to reconcile and try to move forward in a good way, to work toward healing, but I think that part of that journey lies in acknowledging the past so that we don't repeat of it," he said.

Meanwhile, Lewis gave a cautiously hopeful assessment about what she wanted from the public forums.

"I don't have any illusions that I am going to fix all of the historical trauma, but as one of our members said, 'We may not change this generation, but hopefully we can help the next generation to be able to find a way to be more open to partnerships,'" she said.

Remaining forums

The next policing forum is set for Wednesday, Aug. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ashland Memorial Park Bandshell, to be followed on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 10 a.m. at the Vaughn Library, with the final session on Thursday, Sept. 23 at the Bretting Community Center.

Bad River teen becomes first Native fair queen




Viddy Wabindato is a pretty typical 16-year-old girl with the special distinction of being named Ashland county Fair queen for 2021.

But unlike any other fair queen, Wabindato has an additional cause for pride in her accomplishment. She is the first Bad River tribal member to be named to the ceremonial position in living memory of fair officials, certainly in the 58 years that the fair has been located in Marengo.

Wabindato said her reign carries significant historical importance.

"It's something that makes me feel pretty good. I am proud to represent both Ashland County and Bad River," she said.

Wabindato has been a member of the Rezberries 4-H club based in Odanah since she was a little girl, and has annually entered 4-H contests with photographs and a trip scrapbook, plants and projects involving her pet dog and cat.

"I've won a few trophies and blue ribbons," she said. "Then my mom asked me to run, and I said 'Sure!' so I ran."

Wabindato said she was aware that she was breaking new ground for young Native American women who would follow her, and was eager to give it a shot.

"I was like, yeah! Let's go!" she said.

Wabindato said her queen designation aside, she appreciates that the fair offers 4-H members an opportunity to gather and display the projects they have worked on over the course of the year. Perhaps a bit more down to earth, Wabindato also helped serve up the 4-H buttered-noodle meal, a fundraiser for the clubs.

Fair Secretary Gina Pearce said the queen's duties also include holding the flag for the national anthem and being the face of the fair as goodwill ambassador. Pearce said she was delighted with Wabindato's selection and said she hoped that it was an indication that the Bad River community was becoming more involved in the fair.

"The Rezberries are very active and it's nice that 4-H is represented on the reservation," she said.

Although she's just heading into her junior year at Ashland High School, Wabindato said she has already decided to go to college, although where that will be and what she will study are still up in the air.

Her parents are Bad River tribal member Liz Arbuckle of Bad River and Jim Wabindato, a member of the Little River, Mich., Band of Ottawa Indians.

Arbuckle helped to found the Rezberries 4-H Club eight years ago.

"We wanted to get the Rez kids involved in 4-H and it has grown a lot, she said. "When we started there was 'Oh I don't know; they aren't going to want to have Indian kids at the fair.' That was such a falsehood. We have had nothing but warm welcomes. We are glad to be here."

Arbuckle said her daughter's coronation was a memorable event.

"The fair board was just wonderful, making it a big deal for her, and the tribe is super excited," she said.

Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins said Wabindato's selection as queen was indeed a point of pride for the tribe.

"It is definitely a very proud moment," he said. "Viddy is just an amazing young person, a high achiever and an all-around awesome kid."

It may be a historic event, but Viddy Wabindato doesn't have any problem keeping it all in perspective.

"I'm just having a lot of fun," she said.

Ashland schools, superintendent 'separate'


The Ashland School Board announced Friday a "separation" from Superintendent Erik Olson, but did not specify any reason for the parting.

"In moving forward, the board wishes to make clear that there were no performance issues or any allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Olson," the board said in a prepared release "The board will begin the process of selecting a new superintendent for the district in the coming weeks."

The release said the parting is effective immediately and officials did not return a reporter's calls seeking additional information.

The announcement came after the board met behind closed doors Aug. 11 to discuss Olson's performance. District leaders refused following that meeting to answer a reporter's questions about what performance issues were discussed at the meeting or if any action was taken.

Friday's announcement came after the Daily Press filed open-records requests seeking more information about the closed meeting.

The district records board meetings and posts them on its website, but video of the Aug. 11 meeting cuts out just as members enter closed session and never resumes.

The agenda for that meeting and the coming Aug. 23 meeting called for the board to "convene in closed session for the purposes of discussing the district administrator as it relates to Wisconsin State Statute 19.85(1)© — to consider employment, promotion, compensation or performance evaluation data of any public employee over which the governmental body has jurisdiction or exercises responsibility."

Board President Jeffrey Moravchik said Wednesday that Olson was still employed by the district, but declined to give out any other information.

"Right now we basically can't legally give out any employment information," he said. "As soon as there is some information, I will contact you."

Board Vice President Shelly Viater also refused to comment, saying that the board had agreed that all information was to run through the president.

A reporter's calls to Olson's office over the past week were referred to District Business Manager Bonnie Stegman who then referred them to Moravchik, and Olson could not be reached elsewhere for comment.

Olson was hired in 2018 from West Bend, where he held an identical position. He resigned from that position after a rift with that district's leaders.


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