In 1990, the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa sued the state of Minnesota, arguing that an 1837 treaty signed by the band assured them hunting, fishing and gathering rights in territory ceded to the federal government — a region that now spans all or parts of 12 east-central Minnesota counties.
Centerpiece of the legal dispute was Lake Mille Lacs, which to that point was the state’s walleye Mecca: a giant body of water that routinely produced enough fish to satisfy the hundreds of thousands of sport anglers who descended on it, winter and summer.
Also at stake was a multimillion dollar tourism economy that featured the Mille Lacs area as a shining example of outstate Minnesota prosperity. Around the lake’s entirety flourished businesses established to sell bait, gas and food to anglers, and to provide lodging.
In 1993, in an attempt to avoid continuation of the 1990 lawsuit that promised to be extremely prolonged and expensive, the Mille Lacs band and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reached an agreement that gave the band $8.6 million, 7,500 acres of land and exclusive fishing rights on 4.5 percent of the lake.
By spear or net, under terms of the pact, the band could take 24,000 pounds of walleye annually.
In a rancorous decision, preceded by rancorous debate, the Minnesota Legislature defeated the agreement in a narrow vote in 1993.
Which revived the lawsuit that was ultimately decided in the Chippewa’s favor 5-4 by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999.
In retrospect, compared to the current situation, in which the DNR and representatives of eight Chippewa bands, including the Mille Lacs band, comanage the Mille Lacs fishery, and must divide a “safe harvest” quota of Mille Lacs walleyes, the 1993 deal looks pretty good.
Except that the pact was only between the state and the Mille Lacs band.
In time, had the Legislature approved the agreement, separate accords would have been necessary with the seven other signatory bands to the 1837 treaty — settlements that would have been non-starters in the Legislature, given the amount of land, money and other resources it already would have cost to settle with the Mille Lacs band.
Today’s intent is not to recall history for history’s sake, but to underscore the sad fact that the agreement forged more than a quarter-century ago between the state and the Mille Lacs band appears to be the last time the DNR and the Chippewa in this state publicly agreed on anything significant about Mille Lacs.
The DNR and the bands would argue that in their private meetings they get along fine, that they regularly discuss and negotiate Mille Lacs management minutia with the shared intent of returning the lake to its storied heyday.
Which in all likelihood is true.
But the greater truth is Minnesota remains a state divided on Lake Mille Lacs.
Were it not so, the “technical” meetings held by DNR and Chippewa biologists to determine Mille Lacs harvest quotas and strategies would be open to the public.
Last week, when the DNR announced that no walleyes could be kept from Mille Lacs this year and that no live bait could be used by anglers — both historical firsts — commissioner Tom Landwehr said he “hadn’t heard” from the Chippewa about their plans for the lake.
“They usually don’t let us know until the last minute” what they’re going to do, Landwehr said.
Widely agreed is that multiple generations of Native Americans have been treated poorly — and worse — in Minnesota since at least 1750, when the Chippewa arrived at Mille Lacs, having forced out the Dakota.
But some good things have happened as well, especially the exclusive state gaming pact signed with Native Americans in 1989, from which the Mille Lacs band has reaped many millions in casino profits.
Everyone hopes walleyes return in huge numbers to Mille Lacs, and soon.
But even if they do, faith in the lake’s dual management always will be doubted until representatives of the state and the Chippewa meet together in public to discuss, decide and announce for all to see and hear the fortunes of a Minnesota lake that once was treasured.
But now is troubled.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org