Emily Lindell: We're obliged to recognize treaty rights

  • Article by: EMILY LINDELL
  • Updated: May 14, 2010 - 5:21 PM

Past generations broke the trust with Indians -- but we can right the wrong.

I have been excited to read recent media accounts of the off-reservation treaty rights that Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe tribal members are working to reassert. This is a tremendous, historic moment when complex historical relations can be honestly addressed and residents of our area can contribute to racial reconciliation.

During the 19th century, European-American colonization of the interior of this continent involved a combination of war, massacre, dislocation, starvation, disease, manipulation and cultural assault against the original inhabitants of this land. As "peace" was made with the surviving members of different indigenous nations, treaties were negotiated with tribal representatives. These treaties sold or ceded vast tracts of land to the expanding federal government while promising that native nations would retain permanent, sovereign land bases in the form of reservations. They also guaranteed the preservation of various other rights as specified in individual treaties.

Almost all of northern Minnesota is land that was ceded to the U.S. government by its Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) inhabitants fewer than 160 years ago. While transferring the territory to the federal government (via the treaties of 1837, 1854, 1855 and 1863), the Ojibwe bands simultaneously reserved rights to hunt, fish and gather throughout this entire geographic area. These were the terms of the contract that allowed this area to become home to the European-American settlers, from whom many local residents are descended.

There has been much work by other Ojibwe bands in northern Wisconsin and elsewhere in Minnesota to have such treaty rights rerecognized so that this valuable component of Ojibwe cultural tradition and sovereignty can be exercised by generations to come. Now the time has come for White Earth and Leech Lake bands to seek renewed recognition for these rights. And that is the opportunity for our community.

When similar hunting and fishing rights were formally recognized by courts in Wisconsin for the Ojibwe tribes there, non-Indian groups used violence, harassment, mob protests and racist slogans to try to intimidate Ojibwe fishermen and women from exercising their rights. Those ugly protests took root in misinformation and prejudice.

Now non-Indian Minnesotans have the opportunity to recognize that the obligation we have to respect Ojibwe treaty rights is as relevant today as it was the day the treaties were written. Even though preceding generations failed to hold true to the terms of the deal made with Ojibwe bands, we can right that wrong. The right to hunt, fish and gather off-reservation is retained by tribal citizens as simply as when a landowner opts to retain mineral rights to a piece of property while selling surface rights to a new owner.

Recognizing these harvesting rights may take some level of adjustment for non-Indian residents. It's possible that we have lived with the injustice of Minnesota's failure to recognize these treaty terms for so long that we accept it as right. This puts us at risk to blame, scapegoat and deride our Ojibwe neighbors for only trying to hold us to our end of a government-to-government, contractual, legal arrangement. If there is criticism due here, it should not be against tribal peoples exercising their sovereign rights but against state authorities who have allowed such an injustice to persist for so long.

Fishing is a hallowed regional tradition for Indians and non-Indians alike. Comanagement of resources with tribes in Wisconsin and elsewhere in Minnesota has proven successful for all concerned. Shared efforts to protect resources from true threats, such as the nearly universal mercury contamination of fish in Minnesota, will most certainly promote cleaner, more plentiful resources for all our children.

There has been criticism of plans for a fishing protest by tribal members on the day before today's state walleye opener. But whether the reassertion of Ojibwe harvesting rights begins with such an event, or only after a long and expensive court battle, it must come. Ojibwe residents of this area have been denied justice for far too long already.

Emily Lindell lives in Shevlin, Minn.

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