Call for resignation of DNR Chief after 'Apartheid' remark

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MINNEAPOLIS - The leaders and members of eight Minnesota tribes have called for the resignation of Department of Natural Resources commissioner Gene Merriam.

Merriam, at a fundraiser for Proper Economic Resource Management (PERM), an outspoken anti-treaty rights "sportsmen's" group, compared the exercise of treaty rights to present-day apartheid. "I think that any system of apartheid based on race is inherently misdirected," he was quoted as saying when asked about the fairness of different rules for Indians and non-Indians. The fundraiser took place in early May in the township of Wahkon, located on Lake Mille Lacs in northern Minnesota.

Members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux Community, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Upper and Lower Sioux Communities of Minnesota, Prairie Island Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, and the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa tribes in Minnesota have called for the resignation in a letter to Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty called Merriam's comments "unfortunate, and did not reflect the policy of my administration." He also said "Merriam will act quickly to ensure that these regrettable comments do not damage the relationship the DNR has with the tribes." A Pawlenty spokesman said Merriam would not resign.

Treaty rights

In 1983 the United States Supreme Court Voigt decision affirmed the treaty rights of the Chippewa to harvest off-reservation natural resources in northern Wisconsin, northeastern Minnesota, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The decision upheld the treaties of 1837, 1842, and 1854, which secured U.S. access to the timber and copper resources in the Lake Superior and ceded millions of acres of land previously occupied by the Chippewa. Traditional Chippewa spearfishing within the ceded territory was outlawed in 1908.

The resumption of spearfishing in 1983 after the Voigt decision prompted violent demonstrations by non-Indian fishermen. These protests escalated each year, and came to the boiling point in 1988 as organized anti-Indian protesters took to the boat landings in great numbers to let their opinions be known. In areas near the boat landings, tribal members exercising their right to spear and other treaty supporters' tires were slashed, vehicles run into ditches, and elders nearly run down. On the landings, spearers and their families were verbally and physically assaulted, threatened with death, and pipe bombs were exploded. On the lakes, spearing boats were rammed, swamped, and blockaded by protest boats. The sides of spearers' boats were pelted with ball bearings from high-powered wrist rocket slingshots fired from the shores, and non-Indian resort owners fired rifles from the shoreline.

In 1991, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb issued an injunction, barring such protesters from being near the shores during spearing in northern Wisconsin. Over the years the protests have grown smaller and smaller, and many of the protesters have questioned their own anti-Indian sentiments.

In an important victory for tribal treaty rights, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in 1999, Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians, upholding the hunting, fishing and gathering treaty rights of the Chippewa and Ojibwe tribes of Minnesota and Wisconsin on lands outside of their reservations. Thousands of walleye, musky and other game fish on lakes across northern Wisconsin and Minnesota have been harvested in the last decade by Chippewa Indians exercising their rights. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan Chippewa bands negotiate annual fishing limits for Indian spear fishers and anglers.

Many object to what they view as a special privilege for Indians that threaten to damage fisheries that subsidize the tourist economy. Even though many studies have shown that pollution has been a larger threat to the ecosystems of lakes in both states, and that tribes have only harvested 3 percent of the walleye, the tensions continue to pervade in the small townships in the ceded areas; tensions that are encouraged by groups like PERM.

During his position as state senator over a decade ago, Merriam was known for his position against the Mille Lacs Band over the treaty rights issue. After the fundraiser in which his remarks were made, the Outdoor News publication quotes Merriam as saying "I was thinking aloud about where I would personally come from. Before I would say the DNR would support this I'd need to have a conversation with the governor."

Governor Pawlenty stated "Apartheid, or segregation based on race, is an abhorrent chapter in human history. The special hunting and fishing privileges enjoyed by Native Americans in Minnesota are the result of legal rights granted to them. Decisions by our legal system should be respected by all Minnesotans."

Presently, the tribes in Minnesota are focusing on the House Republican majority's "racino" proposal, to expand the existing Canterbury Park horseracing track in Shakopee (very close to the Mystic Lake Casino, run by the Shakopee Mdewankaton Sioux Community), adding a state-run casino to the property, and collecting state revenue from the facility.

Tribal leaders could not be reached for comment.