NISSWA, Minn. – Indian treaty rights activists picked a small amount of wild rice from Hole-in-the-Day Lake on Thursday in a protest blunted by an unasked-for permit from the Minnesota Department of National Resources (DNR).
The DNR surprised the group by issuing a one-day special permit to sanction the so-called “en masse” harvest, defusing any conflict for an event that had been widely anticipated and heavily covered by the media.
But the activists vowed to return Friday and for many days to come to provoke a court challenge to the state’s insistence that Chippewa tribes gave up off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering rights when they sold a giant patch of North Woods land to the federal government in an 1855 treaty.
“We want to settle it,” said Jim Merhar, a White Earth band member who was in the crowd along Hwy. 371, a stone’s throw from Gull Lake. “The only way you can do it is by getting it into federal court.”
Col. Ken Soring, chief enforcement officer for the DNR, said Thursday’s one-day permit was issued without request to honor the importance of wild rice in Chippewa culture, to bring attention to clean-water issues and to pay homage to the late Ojibwe Chief Hole-in-the-Day, for whom the lake is named.
Beginning Friday, Soring said, the DNR will stand ready to prosecute anyone who gathers wild rice without a permit.
“After this, it will be normal law enforcement for all people,” Soring said.
Frank Bibeau, an attorney for the group called the 1855 Treaty Authority, said band members from Leech Lake, White Earth and Mille Lacs plan to exercise their off-reservation rights for rice-gathering, duck hunting, fishing, deer hunting and the taking of small game. The group first challenged state officials over its treaty rights in 2010, with unsanctioned fish netting on Lake Bemidji, but the state never followed through with prosecutions.
“We’ll just keep going now, whatever the season,” Bibeau said. Prosecution is doubtful because the state is afraid to go to court on the treaty issue, he said.
In two previous cases, Chippewa bands in the Arrowhead region and around Lake Mille Lacs prevailed in court fights. But law experts say the 1855 treaty — unlike the two other treaties from 1854 and 1837 — doesn’t contain language granting off-reservation rights.
Bibeau said the 1855 treaty is nothing more than a “receipt” for the land. It doesn’t contain explicit language about off-reservation rights because the rights were protected by other treaties already in place, he said. “We don’t need permission from the state,” he said.
Not as tense as Mille Lacs
Bruce Lovald, owner of The Hot Spot bait and tackle store in Nisswa, said the emerging fight for off-reservation rights isn’t as tense as the situation around Lake Mille Lacs, where there’s a walleye crisis.
But he said most people he talks to in his bait shop think band members who hunt and fish off-reservation should have to abide by state licensing laws in order to contribute money for game management.
“They have to give, too,” Lovald said. “They can’t just come in and take.”
Merhar, of the White Earth band, said Chippewa members in northern Minnesota just want to be left alone, unrestricted by state and federal fish and game laws.
“The resources have been here for thousands of years, and we want to keep them here,” said Merhar, who has been ricing off- and on-reservation for more than 50 years.
Rice still ripening
About 75 people gathered along Hwy. 371 between 8 a.m. and noon on Thursday, pounding drums, singing songs, waving an American flag and watching some people attempt to harvest rice from canoes.
Terry Burnette Sr. canoed far out onto the lake and said most of the beds won’t be ripe for another week.
But Bibeau said the condition of the rice won’t stop band members from trying again. The 1855 Treaty Authority canceled a Friday board meeting on the White Earth reservation to stay in Nisswa for at least one more day of ricing, he said.
The 1855 Treaty Authority is independent of tribal governments, but the group’s chairman, Arthur “Archie” LaRose, has held leadership positions in the Leech Lake band. The 1855 treaty territory stretches from about 40 miles west of Duluth to North Dakota. The area excludes the northeast Arrowhead region of Minnesota and the state’s extreme northwest corner.
Matt Swenson, a spokesman for Gov. Mark Dayton, said the idea of a one-day special permit came from DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. He said Dayton approved of the idea but he did not provide further comment.
Hole-in-the-Day Lake is not only policed by the DNR, but the city of Nisswa adopted an ordinance in the mid-1990s banning any fishing, hunting or ricing on the lake to preserve it for wildlife.
Said Bibeau: “I let them know earlier that their ordinance doesn’t mean anything to us.”