Monday, September 21, 2009

Kim Vele's Priorities as Tribal Attorney in the 1980s

The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians' Tribal Council, 2009:
Front row L to R: Greg Miller, Robert Chicks, Terrie Terrio

Back Row L to R: Doug Huck, Kimberly Vele, Jolene Bowman, Joe Miller

When Konkapot descendant, Kimberly Vele graduated from law school in 1984 it was almost unheard of for recent graduates to return to the reservation, but she and a few others set out to reverse that trend. "Indian Law was for hippies" back then, Vele told me. As tribal attorney in the mid 1980's she tried to make the return of the Stockbridge Bible a priority. In researching the case, Vele found The Trustees of Reservations to be aloof. "I wanted questions to specific answers and it seemed they hoped we would just go away" she recollected.

Ultimately Kim Vele was forced to put the return of the Stockbridge Bible on the back burner in order to deal with other issues. The Wolf River Batholith, a landform that encompasses the Stockbridge reservation, was one of twelve possible sites chosen by the National Nuclear Waste Repository Program when Vele was the tribal attorney. Batholiths were considered to be the safest landforms in regard to nuclear waste, and since many Indian reservations are located on batholiths, seven of the twelve sites that the federal government was looking at were located in Indian Country.

Until she left the tribal attorney job in 1987, Kim Vele focused her efforts on preventing the Wolf River Batholith from being selected as a nuclear waste repository site. One day she testified in Washington, D.C. before the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Power, explaining that if the Wolf River Batholith was chosen as a nuclear waste site, it would make the Stockbridge Mohicans' reservation useless, except possibly for grazing. While watching the news on television that night in her hotel room, Vele learned that "Chernobyl had blown up." A few weeks later, the tribe received a letter announcing there would be no more grant funds to study environmental impacts due to the fact that the entire Nuclear Waste Repository Program was being suspended indefinitely.

Kim Vele's efforts to bring the Stockbridge Bible back to the reservation in Shawano County, Wisconsin resulted only in a terse 1986 letter from The Trustees of Reservations, saying that their position hadn't changed.

Sources: Telephone interviews with Kim Vele (6/2004 and 4/14/2006), and a photocopy of a letter from the Trustees of Reservations to Kim Vele.

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