Minnesota Chippewa members test 1855 treaty rights

By Jeff Baenen
Bemidji, Minnesota (AP) May 2010

Several members of two Minnesota Chippewa bands tested their rights under an 1855 treaty by fishing illegally a day before the state’s fishing season opener, but the day passed peacefully with no arrests or tickets reported.

Aaron White Sr. and Sandra Nichols, both members of the Leech Lake band, appeared to be the first on the water in a demonstration that grew to roughly around 100 people. The cousins raised their arms in triumph and exchanged a high-five as they paddled away from shore trailing their net.

The protesters hoped to be cited by conservation officers to provoke a legal showdown over fishing and other rights they say they still hold. But officials said nobody was ticketed or arrested May 14, leaving it unclear when or how the dispute might end up in court.

“It was a pretty quiet day, which is what we hoped it would be,” said Colleen Coyne, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She said the DNR is typically restrained regarding protests.

Capt. James Dunn of the DNR said conservation officers confiscated a couple walleyes, a half-dozen northern pike and around six suckers from one net.

It wasn’t clear if those fish came from White’s net, but he returned to shore and held up what he said was a 300-foot net that DNR officials had cut in two places.


“They stole my net and they tore it and they cut it,” he said angrily.

DNR spokesman Rich Sprouse said officers issued no citations and made no arrests, but that three gross misdemeanor investigations were under way into illegal netting, and any charges would be up to the county attorney. Sprouse said the nets were confiscated in those three cases.

Meanwhile, about 60 people gathered for a picnic and forum on treaty rights organized by elected leaders of the Leech Lake and White Earth bands, who disavowed the protest in favor of negotiating with the state.

“We’re not picking a fight,” said Terry Tibbetts, a White Earth tribal council member. he said going to court would be expensive for both the state and the bands.

“We don’t want it to end up in state court. It’s going to end up to be a costly battle ... Neither one of us can afford it.”

Activists stressed that they wanted the civil disobedience to be peaceful.

“We want people informed, to be peaceful and to not respond or react to anybody who may be in opposition to them,” said Audrey Thayer, a White Earth member who also works for the ACLU in Bemidji.

Darrell Partridge, a Leech Lake member who lives in Bemidji, was one of a few people casting from shore. He didn’t get ticketed, but he said the state should recognize Indian rights to fish for sustenance. He said he’s disabled with a seizure disorder, has a fiancee and 2-year-old son, and they don’t get food stamps.

“Any food that can come to our house is more than welcome,” Partridge said.

Minnesota’s walleye and northern pike season didn”t open until May 15. The DNR had warned that anyone caught fishing illegally would be ticketed. Coyne said resolving the larger issues of treaty rights would be up to the courts.

Tribal leaders and protesters agree their ancestors never agreed to give up the rights to fish, hunt or gather food such as wild rice off-reservation when they signed an 1855 treaty that gave the federal government a large part of their lands in northern Minnesota.

They hope to build on the successful legal battle by the Mille Lacs Chippewa band to assert its fishing, hunting and gathering rights on territory it ceded to the federal government under an 1837 treaty. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that those rights remain in force.

While the 1837 treaty said the Mille Lacs band would retain its fishing, hunting and gathering rights, the 1855 treaty affecting the Leech Lake and White Earth bands was silent on that. Peter Erlinder, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, has said the Supreme Court ruling and other precedents make it clear the absence of such language in the 1855 treaty means the two bands never relinquished those rights. Some lawyers involved with the Mille Lacs case, however, have said it’s not certain if the courts would see a new challenge that way.

There was no visible backlash against the protest from non-Indians in Bemidji.

Greg Bednowicz, of Laporte, stopped at Taber’s Bait to buy his fishing license. He said he saw no harm as long as the bands fish responsibly.

“Ten thousand lakes up here, you know,” Bednowicz said. “I don’t know how many Indians there are, but there’s plenty of room for everybody.”

Tony Baker, of Bemidji, said he has a cabin on the Leech Lake reservation.

“They let me fish there,” he said, adding that Indians are allowed to use nets on certain parts of Leech Lake, “and I have no problem catching my fish.”