At the Governor’s Fishing Opener this weekend, walleyes will be the main attraction. But the showpiece of the event, which this year is expected to attract some 400 participants, will be the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, their Fortune Bay Resort Casino and the good vibes that will be on display between the band and the greater Lake Vermilion community.

In many respects — perhaps most respects — the Bois Forte band in the greater Cook and Tower area exemplifies ways that communities of different cultural backgrounds can get along, even when the issue is sharing natural resources.

Ray Toutloff is one example.

A Bois Forte (“strong wood”) member, he lives on the east end of Lake Vermilion and is in his third term as a member of the tribal council. Like other tribal leaders, he’s proud of the work completed by a wide variety of Lake Vermilion-area residents — band and non-band alike — in advance of this weekend’s visit by Gov. Mark Dayton and other dignitaries.

He’s prouder still of the achievements the band has made since establishing its casino in 1986 on Lake Vermilion, which at 40,000 acres and 10 miles long is one of the state’s largest — and most beautiful — lakes.

The casino, which will serve as headquarters for the Governor’s Fishing Opener, pumps some $30 million annually into the area economy and employs more than 500 people.

“We believe this event will bring the focal point of the fishing opener here to Lake Vermilion,” Toutloff said, “so people in the southern part of the state who perhaps don’t know about us realize where we are and where the casino is and come visit.”

The Bois Forte Band made news a few weeks back when it successfully convinced the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa not to net Lake Vermilion this spring. Typically, Fond du Lac nets Mille Lacs in spring. But the low walleye population there, and correspondingly low Chippewa harvest quotas, left the Fond du Lac Chippewa looking for fish.

The Fond du Lac band has off-reservation harvesting rights on Vermilion under an 1854 treaty with the federal government, and on Mille Lacs under an 1837 treaty.

“Fond du Lac has the right to harvest fish in the 1854 ceded territory, and we defend their right,” Bois Forte chairman Kevin Leecy told the Timberjay newspaper in mid-April after meetings with Fond du Lac leaders. “But we have significant concerns about them harvesting in our back yard. Fond du Lac tribal members use motorized boats to net, while Bois Forte tribal members net in the traditional way with canoes only.”

Leecy also noted that Fond du Lac has other lakes besides Vermilion in the ceded territory it could fish. Toutloff agreed.

“Never have we had a situation where someone was that bold as to come into our resource area,” he said. “We feel this is a serious issue and I think we got our point across.”

Toutloff is among Bois Forte band members who net Vermilion in spring, a practice that is conducted so quietly, and only for members’ “subsistence” needs, that in many cases, the practice is barely noticed.

“We have tribal conservation rules about how the netting must be done,” Toutloff said. Nets can’t go in the lake before 3 p.m. and must come out by 10 a.m. the following day. Maximum net length is 200 feet.

When a net, with any fish that might be in it, is pulled into a canoe, it’s collected in a basket sitting amidships. Only when the canoe and its paddlers reach shore are the fish removed.

“We might get 10 or 15 fish in a night,” Toutloff said. “We just take what we need for our family.”

Netting officially ends May 31, but in many cases ends before the state hook-and-line season begins. “We know nets and fishing boats aren’t compatible,” Toutloff said.

The Bois Forte Band has about 3,400 members, with about 1,000 living on the reservation, most at Nett Lake and the remainder in the community of Vermilion.

Like other Chippewa, the Bois Fort aren’t native to the area, but instead migrated to the region from the east, making landfall in what is now northern Minnesota by way of Upper Michigan and northern Wisconsin. The 1854 treaty with the federal government set aside an undefined reservation area around Lake Vermilion. Other areas, including at Nett Lake — said to be the largest natural wild rice lake in the world — were identified in an 1881 executive order.

Since establishing the casino, the band has diversified its business interests and now owns the Wilderness Golf Course, WELY Radio, a manufacturing company, the Y Store (a gas/convenience shop) and Nett Lake Wild Rice.

“We’ve always prided ourselves in considering the needs of our people first,” Toutloff said. “Sometimes we knock heads in the tribal council the same way any other government leadership body does.

“But at the end of the day, we make decisions that are best for our people.”


Dennis Anderson