George Newago and the vision of the ancestors: preserving treaty rights

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By Nick Vander Puy
Odanah, Wisconsin (NFIC) 9-09

Speaking at the Bad River reserve this summer, honoring the Great Lake Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission’s (GLIFWC) 25th anniversary and the affirmation of Ojibwe treaty rights, George Newago from Red Cliff wasn’t’ sure what he was going to say. But as he remembered Canadian moose hunts he warmed to the speech and powerfully captured what treaty rights mean to the Ojibwe people.

First , Newago  acknowledged elders  Mike and Fred Tribble from Lac Courte  Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin for consciously going out on the ice, fishing, and at the time violating State of Wisconsin fish and game laws in the nineteen seventies to bring a treaty rights test case.  Newago said, with a smile, he’s still a violator.

Newago wore several hats as the Ojibwe treaty rights cases wound their way through the federal court system, culminating in a  5-4 US Supreme Court decision in 1999, affirming treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather in the ceded territories of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Newago  was a tribal chair, a GLIFWC warden, Voigt task force  representative, and a harvester.

He qualified his moose hunting experience. Back some time ago he had a desire to hunt moose. He used to be a hacker golfer and he met some guys in Canada and asked them, “Hey, I want to hunt moose. I’d love to hunt moose.”                         And they said, “Hey, you’re welcome to hunt moose in our land.”  So Newago started asking around, asking a few people, “Hey, do you think I can get that animal across the border?”  He asked Jim Zorn, an  attorney for GLIFWC  that question who  said, “No, never gonna happen. Never gonna happen.”

One of the things Newago has always brought with him is an understanding that we really need to acknowledge our ancestors, we need to acknowledge our elders, and the spirits who are here to help us.

So Newago, Mike Wiggins, and Marvin Defoe went up to the Red Gut Native community near Fort Frances, Ontario, and on the way over the border they stopped in International Falls and purchased around a hundred and twenty gifts.  And they went into the community and gave those gifts and tobacco and had an old lady talk for them and asked if  they could hunt moose in their land.

Now, this is about the impact of harvesting. It’s not about sport. It’s about getting meat and feeding families and moving in that direction. So the men went out four days with other tribal members from Red Gut, and rode and rode and rode but they didn’t see a thing.

But Newago had dreamt of a moose earlier and with his partners from Red Cliff stepped up to the plate, a moose presented itself and Newago harvested it.

Then it was time to transport the moose across the border. Newago carried a letter from the chief of the tribe gifting them the moose.

Canadian customs officials had other ideas when they  reached the border were unimpressed by the letter gifting the moose and interrogated them for several hours….


Mikey Wiggins from Bad River was worried he might go jail and lose his gun. according to Newago The customs officials were really confused because they’d never seen somebody try to transport a moose through customs this way.  But Newago who had experience in law enforcement helped everyone  get their  story together and was eventually able to transport the moose across international boundaries with only a letter from a chief. Newago has since brought over six other moose.

There’s a way of getting things done, Newago, reminds the people. “It goes back to remembering who we are. We are Anishinaabe. Remembering about asema (tobacco). Remembering to acknowledge and  ask our ancestors what we should do.”

Newago remembers when the State of Minnesota wanted to buy out treaty rights. When the Shinnabe (tribal members) went into another room and caucused, he said, “How many of you have asked your relatives what we should do?” Not a single person could raise their hands.

When the tribes finally asked in a shaking tent at Lac du Flambeau (Waswagoning) it was tough to ask the question and the spirits responded, “No, you gotta fight. You gotta stand up. You need to take care of, what you need to take care of.”

And when the tribes went to Washington in 1999, to argue for treaty rights in Mille Lacs v. Minnesota,  and they had that drum there in front of the US Supreme Court  Newago says it was like thunder. When he sat  next to the drum, he remembers,  it was so powerful it was unbelievable.

And  earlier when Congressman Dave Obey and Gov. Tommy  Thompson wanted to buy out treaty rights George Newago and Marvin DeFoe went to all the communities with tobacco for the elders and spiritual people and asked what we should do. And they came to Red Cliff to George’s mothers house and he received a four to five hour lesson on what treaty rights mean to the Anishinaabe….

“What he learned was those treaties were a vision of our  ancestors.  “It was our existence,” Newago says, “as Anishinaabe.”

And we found this out because we asked our relatives what we should do,  Newago says.

A Youtube program featuring George Newago can be found online at the account “Skabewis.”