BEMIDJI, MINN. - On the eve of Minnesota's fishing opener and with tribal drums beating in the background, two Leech Lake Band of Chippewa members placed fishing nets in Lake Bemidji on Friday, launching a potentially contentious battle over off-reservation treaty rights.
"We're taking back our rights,'' said Aaron White Sr., 31, of Longville, who laid two nets in the lake from a small boat with his cousin, Sandy Nichols of Cass Lake.
Two hours later, Department of Natural Resources conservation officers pulled up in boats and confiscated the nets and about a dozen suckers, walleyes and northerns in them, while some band members shouted at them from shore.
"We were born with these rights,'' one hollered.
Because illegally netting fish is a gross misdemeanor, no citations were issued. Instead, the case will be turned over to the Beltrami County attorney's office, probably next week, for possible prosecution.
Organizers want to use the case to assert their belief that the 1855 treaty the Chippewa signed with the federal government doesn't restrict their off-reservation rights to fish, hunt and gather.
More than 100 band members, supporters and onlookers turned out on the lakeshore for the Stop Treaty Abuse Rally on a warm, sunny afternoon. Despite concerns that the protest could spark a confrontation, the event was peaceful.
Protesters included members of the Leech Lake and White Earth bands of Chippewa.
"We didn't give up our rights to hunt and fish in northern Minnesota [with the treaty],'' said Ken Coleman Jr. of the White Earth Band. American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks also helped set a net. "This has been festering for a long time,'' he said later.
There was some tension when 10 DNR officers showed up in three boats and on foot. Two officers waded into the crowd on shore, answered questions, said they were there to investigate alleged illegal activities and then left.
White was angry after his nets were seized as he and his cousin were about to pull them in.
"He said, 'Give me the net.' I said, 'No,' and he cut my net,'' White said. "He destroyed 300 feet of it.'' Officers also confiscated a third net placed out by another group.
Now the issue could head to the courts, unless some agreement is reached between the bands and state. The fight could have broad implications, possibly affecting fishing on some of the state's most popular lakes and fracturing already tenuous relations between Indians and non-Indians.
That friction simmered near the surface Friday. Six white men who said they were Bemidji-area businessmen looked on with disdain at the protest, saying they didn't believe the 1855 treaty gives bands off-reservation rights. They wouldn't give their names, saying they feared reprisals. They said the case will exacerbate strained relations between the races.
"I'll cut their nets,'' one said.
And later, while band members held up treaty rights signs on the busy road nearby, some motorists honked in support, but a young white man in a pickup hurled epithets at the demonstrators as he drove past.
Coleman, the White Earth Band member, said there's a "pretty good'' relationship between Indians and whites in the region, but acknowledged the continued friction.
Sense of history strong
The case is significant because the 1855 treaty area covers a large swath of northern Minnesota and could extend beyond fishing rights to include wildlife, timber, minerals and other resources. And if the bands are successful, it's possible fishing regulations could be affected in areas heavily dependent on tourism.
"I don't think it will have any impact on tourism or fishing,'' said Denelle Cauble, executive director of the Bemidji Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Audrey Thayer of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Bemidji, a White Earth Band member, said her group supports the bands' contentions and will defend those charged. If the Chippewa win the case, they have said, they would share management of the fisheries.
Bob Shimek, a Red Lake Band member and an organizer of the protest, said the U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled that the 1855 treaty didn't abrogate the band's hunting and fishing rights. He was pleased with Friday's event.
"We accomplished our goal; we are sending a message to the world that we are reclaiming our rights.''
Doug Smith • 612-673-7667