Leader Pushes for Indian Sense of Identity

NICK HOCKINGS and his Chippewa colleagues in the Wa-Swa-Gon Treaty Association believe in active exercise of Indian treaty rights, including spearfishing on nearby lakes. Last fall the association led a successful move here to overturn a state agreement accepted by elected tribal leaders that would have suspended Indian hunting and fishing rights for 10 years in exchange for state aid. Wa-Swa-Gon members, including Mr. Hockings, who is vice-chairman, saw the agreement as setting a bad precedent.

Wa-Swa-Gon members view the current effort by Wisconsin county leaders to encourage a federal reexamination of Indian policy as one more variation on this theme of trying to deprive Indians of their treaty rights.

Such efforts, combined with Washington's well-intentioned but misguided attempts to resolve Indian problems through handouts, have taken a heavy toll over the years on the Indian sense of identity and self worth, says Hockings. The constant message, he says, has been that doing things the Indian way is the wrong way. He says it relates directly to the high degree of Indian alcoholism and unemployment.

``When you lose your identity, you reach out for something you think will lift your spirits or make you feel good. Alcoholism is the No. 1 problem on every Indian reservation. We've probably got a rate of 40 percent on this one. Every family is affected. Unemployment, always a disgrace, sometimes reaches 60 percent here.''

Hockings speaks from experience. Interviewed at his lakeside home here, he says he was addicted to alcohol for more than 20 years. Alcoholism sapped his will to work and his self-respect.

The solution? ``I think it lies in going back to traditional ways, to start acting more like our ancestors - very proud, honest, trustworthy. The Indian people don't want to be totally separate, but we need to have a sense of identity. Each person needs to feel complete and a spiritual connection with the earth and the environment. When people feel good about who they are ... they don't need the crutch of alcohol.''

He gave up alcohol six years ago when he realized that it was changing him. ``You're not the same person - it alters your mind,'' he says. Since then, he has built a deck on his house, a dock on the lake below, and a garage. ``I couldn't have done that if I was still drinking,'' he says.

Though he still does not have a formal job, he says he earns enough to get along by speaking to school and civic groups about Indian culture and by selling art, such as his carved walking sticks, to nearby shops. Money is a necessity but the amount pales in importance to winning a life back. As he says: ``It's all just material stuff.''

``We've got so much right here on this reservation,'' he says. ``We just need to come together and realize it.''

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