Media Report on Walt's Passage into the Spirit
Bresette praised as peacemaker
Red Cliff activist remembered for putting words into action
From The Daily Press, Ashland WI, 2/23/1999
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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,"
"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.