Celebrating Menominee Restoration Day: A discussion with Sylvia Wilber

Ryan Winn

This Dec. 22, we each should take time to commemorate Menominee perseverance. On that day in 1973, thanks to the efforts of Menominee leaders Ada Deer, Sylvia Wilber, and countless others, U.S. President Richard Nixon signed into law the Menominee Restoration Act, which returned the federal trust status guaranteed to the tribe through its treaties with the United States.

The Menominee went from being the first tribe to succumb to the failed federal Indian termination policy to the trailblazers who overturned it. This was a Herculean undertaking, but ever since, Native Americans look to the Menominee as fighters who used diplomacy to win back their sovereignty. Non-Natives should celebrate Menominee Restoration Day, too, because in winning their victory in Washington, they proved American politics can work for all of its citizens.

In 1954, the Menominee were targeted for termination because they were one of the most successful tribes in America. Through the negotiation and implementation of 10 treaties, the Menominee were able to maintain their ancestral homelands, stave off allotment, run a prosperous lumber mill, and win a lawsuit against the federal government for mismanagement of the harvest of their forest products.

They paid the salaries of their federal Indian agents, had their own doctors, dentists, and hospital, as well as both a utility and telephone company. They also funded their government, schools, and churches by using the treaties in the ways in which those documents were intended.

America has a fickle relationship with Indian treaties. The United States Constitution decrees that treaties are enacted on a nation-to-nation basis, which makes Native American nations equal to the U.S. in terms of the law. Native peoples’ sovereignty was recognized by France and England prior to the formation of the United States. In fact, after winning the Revolutionary War, one of the first acts George Washington did was sign a treaty with the Delaware Lenape tribe. In effect, Washington used Native Americans’ nationhood to assert that the United States was a nation, too.

Implemented in 1961, Menominee Termination nullified the tribe’s treaties and subjected them to new federal regulations. In my conversation with Wilber, she noted that the Menominee people had to develop a tax base to cover the expenses that the United States had agreed to provide when they reduced the tribe’s pre-contact land base of “nearly 10 million acres to 234,000.”

Faced with this financial burden, the tribe’s leaders started selling land around what is now Legend Lake. Wilber stated that was when the group Determination of Rights and Unity of Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS) rose up to protect the tribe’s assets. According to Wilber, DRUMS had “over 3,000 members.”

In 1973, Wilber and Deer were the first Menominee leaders to testify before the United States’ Congress as advocates for Menominee Restoration. Looking back, Wilber described herself as “a girl from South Branch,” but when she delivered her passionate testimony in Washington, D.C., she was serving as the chairwoman of Menominee Enterprises.

While her speech was a skilled indictment of the destruction termination brought upon her people, Wilber stated, “I didn’t want all of the attention, but it was something I had to do or we were doomed.” She was the tribe’s leader and recognized, “It was my job to help our people, and I believe in doing my job.”

When I asked Wilber to reflect upon her congressional statement and the questions that followed it, she again chose humility over bravado. She stated, “I did it because of the support of the people.” She added, “When I see families today, I think of the generations of Menominee who fought alongside us.” Wilber’s message that political solutions “have to work for the whole of the people” is in stark contrast from the words of modern politicians.

If anyone questions if American politics can work, or if the promises of the United States Constitution can be upheld, the story of how the Menominee tribe came together and made Washington reverse course should offer solace.

In 1971, Wilber told her people, “If Menominee Restoration is important to us, we will make it important to Congress.” Two years later, they did just that. On Dec. 22, we each should take time to honor their tenacity.



Ryan Winn teaches communication, English, and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school, visit www.menominee.edu.