Minnesota, Tribe Battle Over Fishing
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This Saturday is a big deal in Minnesota. It's the start of wildlife fishing season. And that means thousands of anglers will travel to the state's inland lakes for what has long been an annual ritual.
But some Native Americans plan to break the law and fish tomorrow. The Leech Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe Indians say a mid 19th century treaty gives them the right to hunt and fish whenever they want. And some are planning civil disobedience to prove their point.
From Bemidji, Tom Robertson of Minnesota Public Radio reports.
TOM ROBERTSON: For some fishing enthusiasts, the Walleye Opener is a holy sports day, so the Ojibwe's plan to fish a day early is causing big controversy. The rally will happen on Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota. It's the talk of the town in the small community of Bemidji.
At a downtown barbershop called The Headquarters, barber Ted Lafriniere(ph) says he's hearing lots of chatter.
Mr. TED LAFRINIERE (Barber, The Headquarters): You get from both sides. You know? I've heard more from the non-natives, you know, saying that they can sympathize with the Indians, saying that, you know, it's in the treaty, it's in the treaty.
ROBERTSON: Lafriniere is cutting Bob Needham's(ph) hair. Needham is an Ojibwe Indian. Needham says he's heard lots of angry talk against treaty rights in the local bars here.
Mr. BOB NEEDHAM: I really don't get into that because it just ends up in a quarrel or a fight...
Mr. LAFRINIERE: No win situation.
Mr. NEEDHAM: Yep, it is.
ROBERTSON: Ojibwe chiefs who signed the Treaty of 1855, sold off around 13 million acres to the federal government. But today, the Ojibwe say that treaty never gave up their rights to hunt, fish and gather on the land. It's an argument similar to one made by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota in the 1990s. That lawsuit went all the way to U.S. Supreme Court. Indians from the Mille Lacs Band won the case.
Ojibwe Band member Bob Shimek is organizing Friday's protest and hopes the Ojibwe anglers will be ticketed for fishing out of season. He wants to fight those citations in court.
Mr. BOB SHIMEK (Protest Organizer): If people show up on the 14th and want to throw a hook and a line in Lake Bemidji without a state permit, they should do that. You know? We reserve these rights. They still exist. I think it's good to send the message to the state that we're not going to take their harassment anymore.
ROBERTSON: The treaty impacts nearly 40,000 Ojibwe in northern Minnesota, and not all agree on the confrontational approach. White Earth and Leech Lake Tribal Government leaders have tried to discourage the demonstration.
Leech Lake tribal attorney Frank Bibeau says elected tribal leaders want the state to recognize their hunting and fishing rights, but they'd rather avoid going to court.
Mr. FRANK BIBEAU (Legal Director, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe): We don't want to waste Minnesota's money. We don't want waste our money. We don't want waste their time or our time. We want to do this methodically, civilly, logical and friendly.
ROBERTSON: The big worry here is that the treaty issue will heighten racial divisions between Indians and whites throughout the state. Some of that anger is already showing up in Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards.
Doug Meyenburg heads Proper Economic Resource Management, a group that opposes treaty rights and supports equal hunting and fishing rights for all. Meyenburg says his group will work to fight the treaty effort, but for now it has no plans for a counter-demonstration tomorrow.
Mr. DOUG MEYENBURG (President, Proper Economic Resource Management): I encourage, you know, my members and I encourage all sportsmen to just stay away from it. It's an illegal act that's going to happen and the authorities are going to tag those that decide to try to fish outside the law.
ROBERTSON: Ojibwe organizers say that while they're spoiling for a fight, they don't expect their protest to lead to violence. What they want is for the courts to clear up once and for all their right to hunt and fish on land that was once theirs.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Robertson in Bemidji, Minnesota.
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