Twenty years of treaty rights: Part Two


Turmoil in the Northwoods: Late 1980s

In February of 1987, Judge Doyle ruled on the scope of the treaty rights. He upheld that the Ojibwe have a right to harvest all natural resources used at the time of the treaties. He further allowed the right to use both traditional and modern methods. By now, tribal spearer's were using motored aluminum boats instead of the traditional birch bark canoes, and the torches used to illuminate the vessel and guide the spearers through the night was replaced by a halogen car headlight affixed to hard hats, usually worn by construction workers.

In August of 1987, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb was appointed the case. A ruling by Crabb set into motion the escalating tensions that pervaded the boat landings where tribal members launched their boats for spearing. She specified that the state's regulatory powers only extended to the "conservation of a particular species, but to no other purpose." During the early spring seasons of 1988 and 1989, the hotbed of anti-spearing sentiment was Lac du Flambeau, Wis. Located in the heart of the heavily forested highland lake area, and containing more freshwater lakes per square mile than anywhere else in the world, for a short time the world's attention was focused on this rural Ojibwe reservation in northeast Wisconsin.

When the Ojibwe went spearing, angry protestors (who usually had just arrived from local bars) tried to stop them by using intimidation and violence by showing up in numbers at the boat landings. Law enforcement was called as some of the protesters threw rocks, hurled ball bearings from wrist-rockets and other objects at the spearers. Gunshots were fired along the shores near resorts as their owners watched the spear fishers navigated the lakes.

White protesters took to the lakes, dragging anchors across spawning walleye beds, ramming spearers' boats, and creating dangerous wakes which had the potential to capsize the spearer's boats. Violent protests marred with racism held by anti-treaty rights groups escalated hostility toward not only the spearers, but to anyone appearing to be Indian. Tribal members faced verbal insults and threats when going off the reservation to nearby towns.

The Ojibwe and their supporters used nonviolence tactics to fight back. Community members held rallies and gatherings before the spearers headed out to the lakes 'listed' for spearing that evening. Politics usually splitting the tribe in half were pushed aside as the community united.

Then-Governor Tommy Thompson (who is now on President Bush's Cabinet) had sided with anti-treaty groups during his 1986 campaign for governor. Thompson tried to have the attorney general's office ask Judge Crabb to issue an injunction to shorten the spearing season because state-coordinated law enforcement couldn't guarantee the safety of the Indian spearers.

"Everybody is waiting for something bad to happen," Thompson said after 550 reporters from around the world applied for press credentials to cover the 1989 spear fishing season in Lac du Flambeau. Judge Crabb stunned Thompson, asking "Can we let the fear of bloodshed destroy our state and our country? What kind of country would we have if brave people had not faced down the prejudiced, the violent, and the lawless in the 1960s? What kind will we be if we do not do the same today?" Spearfishing came to a close that spring for the Ojibwe spearers on an emotional, triumphant note.

On Aug. 14, 1990, the Mille Lacs Band, (also signatories of the 1837 treaty with specific hunting, fishing, and gathering wording) filed suit in federal court, seeking to prevent the state from enforcing laws infringing on their treasury usufructuary rights. In September of 1993, the U.S. Justice Department joined the Mille Lacs band in a suit. The Mille Lacs band's off reservation rights were upheld in 1994 and in 1995 the Wisconsin Ojibwe bands joined the suit for the second phase of the litigation, determining the extent of the rights and the nature of the state's regulatory rights. In 1997 the court ruled that the band was to regulate the harvests with the conservation code. The state of Minnesota appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court but lost. It then took the case to the Supreme Court, which accepted the case.

On March 24, 1999, in the landmark Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Mille Lacs Band retained the right to hunt, fish, and gather, as originally stipulated in the 1937 treaty. Once again, the Lake Superior Ojibwe came away from a long legal-and sometimes physical- battle in victory.

After the storm

Studies done about the impacts of spearing indicate that tourism in the ceded area was not harmed but has grown over the years, and that walleye populations are not harmed, as only 20 percent of the walleye speared are female. Spearers take less than 10 percent of the walleye population in the ceded territories.

Many of the anti-treaty protesters began to question their own sentiments. Lac du Flambeau tribal chairman Henry "Butch" St. Germain said "It became apparent over the years that most non-Indians want to work out a rational solution. Relations continue to improve with the neighboring towns." Leaders in 12 neighboring communities have made efforts to stifle lakeside protests.

As the events of the late 1980s are recalled today, Lac du Flambeau tribal members shake their heads in a search for words. "Hectic," and "racism" repeatedly appear in each recollection. The community drew from its strength and strong cultural beliefs to endure, traits that have shaped the lives of the tribal members lives and those of their children, reflected in the tribe's strong social and government structures today.

Issues today

The federal government no longer makes treaties with Indian tribes, and spear fishing is only one of the court-affirmed rights stemming from the treaties of the 1800s. Around the United States, and in countries around the globe, indigenous treaty rights issues still arise and circumstances paralleling the turmoil of the Lake Superior Ojibwe occur in each situation.

Other natural resources, the minerals underground in the area in particular, continue to be threatened by the greed of today's corporate America. Treaty rights may prove to be a useful tool in preventing any further mines from opening. Multinational corporations continue to look at the granite bedrock around Lake Superior as a source for metallic minerals and uranium. Treaties do not cover mining and mineral rights, but do guarantee the Ojibwe access to the off-reservation fishing, hunting, and gathering rights stipulated in the treaties of the 1800s. These very rights would be in jeopardy if any of the nine proposed mines were to open in the region.

The treaty rights issue (and subsequent events since the Voigt Decision of 1983) has been a catalyst for a new resurgence of tribalism and pride. A strong message has been sent to the world: indigenous tribes value the rights and richness of our cultures and are intelligent and dignified enough to settle our conflicts peacefully.