Crowd celebrates after 25 years of treaty co-management

Story and Photos By Charlie Otto Rasmussen
Bayfield, Wisconsin (NFIC) 9-09

Wisconsin DNR Secretary Matt Frank and Jim Zorn congratulate each other  as Gerald DePerry looks on.

The famed Big Top Chautauqua grounds served as a celebratory melting pot for more than 900 tribal members, area residents and statewide dignitaries who came to mark Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission’s silver anniversary. 

“Both the diversity and numbers of people is truly stunning,” said James Zorn at the July event. “What a stark contrast to the ill will and shameful acts toward tribal members that we saw at Wisconsin’s boat landings 20 years ago."

Zorn is Executive Administrator of the Commission – commonly known as “GLIFWC”... created by upper Great Lakes Ojibwe (or Chippewa) tribes in 1984 approximately one year after a federal court upheld off-reservation harvest rights in northern Wisconsin through the Voigt Decision.   Subsequent Ojibwe treaty harvests regulated by the Commission – particularly spearfishing walleye – were met with heated protests from non-Indians and marginal cooperation from skeptical state officials into the early 1990s.

“Tonight, people have come together as neighbors and partners, recognizing that we must work together to protect and sustain the ecosystem upon which all us so very much rely,” Zorn said.

 Mohican musician Bill Miller entertained the crowd with stories about the treaty era and personal history, and as usual, his inspirational music.
Prior to a performance by Grammy winning musician Bill Miller, resource and legislative leaders took to the Big Top stage armed with gifts and accolades.  Striking a tone unimaginable a few decades ago, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank made clear that GLIFWC has come into the fore of environmental management in the region.

“The Commission and all the tribes that support it have been key partners.  I think quite honestly this [Voigt] decision that happened 25 years ago was a great step forward,” Frank said.  “The partnership that we have developed ensures that we’ll continue to work together for generations to come to protect these beautiful resources.  I can tell you from the DNR, this relationship is very important to us.”

The 25th anniversary celebration centered on the idea of minwaajimo, or telling a good story.  Displays highlighting GLIFWC’s natural resources, law enforcement and cultural programs along with demonstrations on traditional Ojibwe skills like carving cedar knockers used to harvest wild rice were scattered around the Big Top Chautauqua grounds. 

Overwhelmed by the exceptional attendance, chefs serving complimentary Lake Superior whitefish dinners were compelled to fire up propane grills and prepare bratwurst and hamburgers to meet the demand. By the time Mohican artist Bill Miller took the stage with the Big Top Canvas Orchestra, the capacity audience had finished their meals.

A talented and fitting performer for the anniversary event, Miller’s personal history interwove with the social upheaval caused by the anti-Indian turmoil of the later 1980s. During an Ashland area visit to play at a folk festival, Miller was forced from his hotel by angry fishermen out to harass anyone that appeared Indian – Ojibwe or otherwise.

“The times are so much better now,” Miller said. “And the Ojibwe have really raised the bar for all native people.”