Two Ojibwe bands cancel plan to fish Lake Bemidji under treaty

Bemidji, Minnesota (AP) April 2010

Two northern Minnesota Ojibwe bands who said they would fish illegally a day before the May 15 walleye opener to assert hunting and fishing rights they say are guaranteed by 19th-century treaties have cancelled their plans as of April 26th.

While similar actions by other Ojibwe bands have sometimes led to tensions and even violence, the Leech Lake and White Earth bands say they announced their plans ahead of time to try to avoid that. The push comes more than a decade after the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe won a similar claim in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case. The Leech Lake and White Earth bands are making their claim based on a treaty they signed with the federal government in 1855.

Racial tensions were high during the Mille Lacs court case in the 1990s. There were incidents of violence in the 1980s when other Ojibwe asserted their right to spear walleye in northern Wisconsin.

“We don’t want to end up like it was in Wisconsin. We don’t want to do it at night. We don’t want to be sneaking around,” Leech Lake tribal attorney Frank Bibeau told Minnesota Public Radio News. “We don’t want the police out there with riot gear. We don’t want drunk people with beer cans, and having a whole bunch of people getting all mad about things. And we don’t want to have to waste a bunch of time and money fighting about that. That’s nonproductive for anybody.”

The Leech Lake and White Earth bands, which have about 30,000 members, had planned to have members fish illegally on the shore of Lake Bemidji on May 14. Bibeau said several hundred Ojibwe anglers would have been there and that some had expected to be ticketed, but that the demonstration would have been peaceful.

The two bands could have asserted their claims in the 1990s when the Mille Lacs band did, Bibeau acknowledged, but he said they were distracted at the time by infighting and tribal government corruption.

Tribal attorneys sent a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty laying out their claim.

“I want to say this politely. We’re not asking for their permission,” Dale Green, who works for the Leech Lake Band’s legal department, told MPR. “We’re going to re-exert our rights, but ... being good neighbors, we want the governor to talk with us and be aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and if he can assist us.”

Peter Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, has laid out the case for the northern Ojibwe bands in a paper that will be sent to the governor and other state officials. He said it may be more cost effective for the state to negotiate rather than fight in court.

“We are in a position, I think, to be able to say without much argument that we are correct,” Erlinder said. “So the question then is, what is it that the state is going to be obligated to do in order to live up to the obligations that were established between the United States government and the Ojibwe Nation in those treaties?”

Some other small Ojibwe bands in northern Minnesota already enjoy treaty-based rights to hunt and fish off reservation. When federal courts recognized the rights of bands in northern Wisconsin in the 1980s, the case also included tribes in northeastern Minnesota.

The Fond du Lac Band quietly exercise its hunting and fishing rights, while the Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands lease their rights to the state in exchange for annual payments of several million dollars.

Green said the treaties from the 1800s may have sold off land to the federal government, but he said the Ojibwe people never gave up their rights to hunt and fish on that land.

“When you view the treaties together, starting with the 1825 treaty and moving to the more current ones, like the 1855, the rights are there for exercising our rights to ... hunt, fish and gather using modern means,” Green said.


Information from:
Minnesota Public Radio News