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Mille Lacs Band seeks to preserve heritage and treaty fishing rights

ONAMIA, Minn. – Dozens of Ojibwe Indians converged upon Mille Lacs Lake in northern Minnesota the morning of April 14 in an ages-old tribal harvest ritual involving the netting of game fish.

Their target, the walleye pike, is one of the most valued game fish cherished by Indian and sports fishermen throughout the Midwest and has become an object of tested political conflict.

Early in the morning, Ojibwe fishermen deftly maneuvered through the lake’s strong waves as they tugged and pulled at 100-foot-long gill nets sometimes filled with walleye and a few northern pike.

Filling their boats with tangled mesh nets and trapped game fish, the netters paddled their boats quickly to shore and were met there by tribal game wardens who chatted with them and observed their catch.

Once each Ojibwe fisherman registered, weighed and measured his fish at the natural resources station, they were off to their cleaning sites where they visited with friends and planned the next day’s strategy.

Mille Lacs Lake is one of the nation’s largest at 130,000 acres and most prized for its game fishery.

For years, it was a political battleground between the state of Minnesota and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, following a 1983 high court decision that recognized the reserved rights of Ojibwe Indians to hunt, fish and gather in their customary manner in the territory they ceded in an early 19th-century treaty.

When Minnesota challenged the band’s use of the lake for harvest purposes, the tribe sought declaratory judgment for relief through the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1999 ruled in favor of the Mille Lacs Band.

The tribe now annually negotiates with Minnesota for the safe harvest levels of walleye pike and other species, with harvest regulations administered by the band.

The Ojibwe took about 83,000 pounds of walleye pike in 2005, far below the 269,000 pounds taken by non-Native sports fishermen that same year, according to Don Wedl, a band planner.

“Our netting is based on biology,” noted Curt Kalk, the band’s commissioner of natural resources, as he described the manner in which the tribe now works with the state on co-management responsibilities and careful use of the fish resource.

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Male walleye pike move into shallow shoals soon after the winter ice sheets melt and recede off northern Minnesota and Wisconsin lakes.

“It’s 46 degrees out there right now,” noted Mike Taylor, Mille Lacs game warden, as he scanned across the expansive lake where the human eye cannot sometimes see the far shore. The male walleye pike come in first to fan a “bed” with their tails.

Ojibwe fishermen like to harvest males as they are smaller and less contaminated with mercury and PCB toxins. But when the female fish come in several days later, many Mille Lacs Band members halt their netting and spearing activities.

Band members Greg Davis, Thomas Mitchell and Doug Sam spent their morning cleaning fish and preparing them in small packages. The trio then delivered the fish to the band’s senior citizen’s center, where they distributed the fish as gifts to tribal elders.

The three also mentor disadvantaged tribal youths and organize apprenticeship programs to train them in wilderness survival, immersion camps where young people learn the language, experience wild rice harvesting and processing, and sugar bush activities.

Davis guided the unsteady hand of a seventh-grade boy, showing and teaching him the art of filleting walleye pike.

All the while, he encouraged the youths and discussed a youth development contract with him to keep him in school.

Soon, the group readied their nets for another round of setting out in the shallows of Mille Lacs Lake.

They plotted their strategy with a discussion of water depth, distance from shore and bottom conditions as they stared for a while at the inside of their boat. They commented on the advice of their grandfathers and uncles, then made a decision.

“It’s about the spirit of doing it,” Davis said as he looked over to his friends for their concurrence. They then loaded up their pick-up truck for another round of treaty fishing.

Rick St. Germaine can be contacted at