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Video: Once Controversial, Spearfishing Is a Way of Ojibwe Life

In its eighth installment, Wisconsin Media Lab discusses spearfishing rights of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe.
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In its eighth installment, Wisconsin Media Lab introduces Jason Bisonette, an Ojibwe of Odaawaazaga’igan and Marine Corps veteran, who believes mainstream education is necessary but an Ojibwe education is needed to survive.

“I started in the late 80s fishing with my brothers. There were certain lakes that they wouldn’t take me on—lakes that they knew there was going to be trouble. They didn’t necessarily want me to witness the racial slurs, stuff getting thrown at us,” Bisonette, a member of the Lac Court Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, said. “Now that I have my own boys fishing with us I understand why they did that. The spearing controversy for some people will probably always be there, they just don’t understand why we do this.”

That controversy peaked in 1983 when a court ruling reaffirmed the right of Lake Superior Ojibwe to exercise their right to hunt, fish and gather off-reservation. Violent protests by northern Wisconsin residents erupted and Ojibwe spearfishing became the scapegoat for economic recession and the erosion of white northwoods culture.

“Rock throwing, sexual and racial taunts, gunshots, assassination threats against tribal judges, and boat rammings became common occurrences at northwoods boat landings,” reads

Protests died down in 1991 when tribes and “the State of Wisconsin agreed to no further legal appeals and a joint federal, state and tribal fishery assessment concluded that tribal spearfishing did not harm the recreational sport fishing population,” says

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Today, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission represents 11 Ojibwe bands in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, and helps implement off-reservation harvests. Fisherman also determine limits on harvests to protect the fish for future generations.

“Being able to go out and harvest fish means that I can be a contributing member of the community,” Bisonette says in the video. “We’ve fished for elders, we’ve fished for single mothers—we always try to give as much as we can away, there’s a lot of honor in that.” explains that the quota each night is determined by the number of permits issued at each lake, and tribal fishermen have to show tribal identification.

“We live in an Americanized society and the federal government has wanted us to assimilate, and for a large part we are, but then there is also the other side, the Ojibwe education is something we have to have to survive as Ojibwe,” Bisonette says in the video. “Tasting that fish is part of that, having that living history. I spear fish because I’m Ojibwe—that’s who we are, that’s what we do.”