By chris zeilinger

For Wisconsin's St Croix Nation, First Steps toward Tribal Transit

Some stories are defined by their negative spaces.

 

In 1837, the St Croix band of Chippewa people signed a treaty with the United States in which they agreed to share their ancestral territory with US logging interests, while retaining their right to live, hunt and fish in the St Croix River valley of what’s now Minnesota and Wisconsin. But in 1854, the US determined that the St Croix band was refusing the government’s “offer” to relocate to a reservation, which led to the nation no longer being a federally recognized tribe. The St Croix band lost its sovereignty, its connection to federal rights and benefits that the US provides to federally recognized tribes, and the treaty rights from 1837 evaporated. The St Croix became a nation of non-people, as far as the US was concerned, living invisibly in northwestern Wisconsin until the federal government restored their recognition in 1938. That was the first of several negative spaces that have defined this tribal nation.

StCroixRailTrail_300
Once the Soo Line Railroad’s route connecting Duluth with Minneapolis and St Paul, this trail runs through the St Croix nation’s ancestral hunting and fishing lands. Trains aren’t in their plans, but transit is possible.

And while the St Croix nation provides its residents and its neighbors with businesses, employment opportunities and social services, they are located in an area of Wisconsin that has no public transportation, neither tribal nor non-tribal. That’s the negative space that CTAA is beginning to explore with the St Croix nation, with support that we receive from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service.

Let’s fast-forward to the present day. The St. Croix have built up many things, including tribal housing, casinos and other tribal enterprises, a Head Start program, tribal senior services, a health clinic, and more. The federal government has affirmed their right to hunt and fish across their ancestral lands. But aside from a few thousand acres of tribal property, they have no reservation, and they have no land they truly can call their own, over which they have full right to exercise their sovereignty. That’s yet another negative space that continues to define the St Croix nation.

Eventually, the St Croix may join the ranks of FTA’s formula-based tribal transit grant recipients. But in order for that to happen, they need to have a couple of years of transit data already submitted to FTA’s National Transit Database (NTD). That’s because this particular FTA grant program allocates 25 percent of its dollars on the basis of tribal low-income population (for those tribal nations with at least 1,000 residents living in households with incomes below 150 percent of poverty), and 75 percent of FTA’s tribal transit formula grant funds are allocated on the basis of vehicle revenue miles, as reported to the NTD. How do you report two years of transit data, when you don’t yet have a transit program? That’s another interesting question of negative spaces that the St Croix nation must address.

In January 2019, when the weather was only cold, but before the “Polar Vortex” descended upon Wisconsin and neighboring states, I spent some time with staff from the St Croix nation’s planning and economic development team, walked them through the basics of what’s involved in becoming a “voluntary reporter” to the NTD, offered some tips and suggestions about how to coordinate a future tribal transit program with their current senior and medical transportation activities, and talked about how the nation’s fleet management practices could dovetail effectively with FTA’s transit asset management system. It was a cold time in northwestern Wisconsin, but there was warmth around the eagerness and the possibilities that the St Croix nation sees in its future. By the time CTAA’s work with them wraps up in the coming year, we are sure to see some of these negative spaces beginning to be filled with positive news.

StCroixSeal
Official seal of the St Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin.

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The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.