NISSWA, Minn. – Indian activists from central and northern Minnesota were cited Friday with gross misdemeanors for attempting to net fish illegally and for picking wild rice without a license.
That’s exactly what the activists were hoping for as they try to take the issue of hunting and fishing sovereignty off the reservation to court.
If the Department of Natural Resources and other law enforcement agencies follow through with prosecutions, Chippewa leaders believe they will have test cases for a court challenge of the 1855 treaty that sold a large swath of north woods land to the federal government. Courts looking at off-reservation rights from other treaties in Minnesota have sided with the Chippewa.
“We want to force the issue and this was the only way to get their attention,” said Todd Thompson, one of two tribal members cited for trying to take fish by illegal methods.
Thompson, 45, who lives on the Leech Lake reservation, and Jim Northrup III, 47, a Fond du Lac band member from Sawyer, Minn., set a 200-foot long gillnet in Gull Lake, just across the highway from Hole-in-the-Day Lake. Before they could return to shore in their canoe, three DNR conservation officers motored toward them. They pulled the net from the water and later issued the men citations. The net was returned.
About an hour later, a pair of DNR officers stopped two members of the Mille Lacs band who were picking rice in a canoe away from a small crowd of supporters who were gathered on shore.
They were handed citations for harvesting without a permit. They said the officers confiscated a small amount of rice from the bottom of their canoe.
Frank Bibeau, attorney for the 1855 Treaty Authority, said the citations brought the group another step closer to freeing all Ojibwe people in the 1855 territory from any government restrictions on where and how they can fish, hunt and gather natural resources.
While he concedes that the 1855 treaty lacks specific language granting off-reservation sovereignty for hunting, fishing and gathering, he said the rights come from other treaties.
Still, Bibeau and others say the state must follow through by prosecuting the cases in court. In the past, he said, the state has walked away from illegal ricing and fishing without trying to gain convictions.
“The strategy for the state is you don’t let it get to court” because the tribes could win, said Kelli Carmean, an anthropologist and professor from Eastern Kentucky University who was observing the action Friday. She said she is studying wild rice culture in northern Minnesota this year while on sabbatical.
DNR enforcement chief Col. Ken Soring said the two fishermen will surely be charged in long-form complaints with gross misdemeanors.
“The Crow Wing [county] attorney will be following up on that,” Soring said.
In two days of demonstrating with many media in attendance, the only visible conflict with DNR conservation officers came during the gillnet bust. Two officers came ashore looking for the fishermen and were taunted by some of the activists, who had hoisted the canoe into a pickup truck that was making a getaway. “These are our rights,” someone in the crowd shouted.
When the officers asked to speak to the fishermen, who were lost in the crowd, one activist said, “We were all in the canoe.”
The officers returned to their boat without incident.
Archie LaRose, chairman of the 1855 Treaty Authority, said the DNR officers would have played “hard ball” and seized the canoe if there weren’t so many media cameras at the scene.
The gillnetting attempt was an extension of a ricing event the day before. It happened after some band members grumbled that the DNR wouldn’t start writing citations until someone tried to illegally harvest walleye. Thompson said the DNR officers speeded to the area as soon as the net was placed.
Thompson said he was one of 12 tribal members arrested in the early 1990s for spearing walleye in Lake Mille Lacs. That incident was an important event in a long fight over off-reservation rights under an 1837 treaty. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Chippewa in that case. Chippewa band members in the Arrowhead Region north and east of Duluth also have won court approval for their off-reservation rights.
The 1855 treaty covers land 40 miles west of Duluth, all the way to North Dakota. Part of it touches Ontario but it doesn’t include the northwestern corner of the state.