Outdoor groups unhappy with tribes' claim for fishing, hunting rights

Getting ready for the fishing opener
In this file photo from May 2008, an angler gets his boat and gear ready for the walleye fishing opener in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Some Minnesota outdoor groups are expressing frustration with two Ojibwe Indian bands in northern Minnesota that plan to reassert hunting and fishing rights they believe are protected by federal treaties from the 1800s.

The White Earth and Leech Lake bands say they'll demonstrate those rights by walleye fishing on the shore of Lake Bemidji the day before the officials walleye season opens on May 15. But some outdoor groups representing white anglers and hunters hope the state of Minnesota puts up a legal fight with the Ojibwe bands.

Don McMillan says when news came out that White Earth and Leech Lake intend to push their right to hunt and fish on lands off their reservations, it brought back memories of the late 1990s. That's when the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe made a similar claim. The state challenged the band, but Mille Lacs won the case in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court victory.

McMillan is president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, an organization that represents some 40 fishing, hunting and conservation groups with nearly 300,000 members. McMillan says he doesn't believe Indians should have different rights than everyone else.

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"The resources are something that should be equally shared by everybody," said McMillan. "Certainly the resource and the number of people in this world has changed since those treaties in the 1800s, which may very well have been appropriate at the time."

Dale Green
Dale Green from the Leech Lake legal department has studied the 1855 treaty issue for 20 years. Green says members of the Leech Lake and White Earth bands will assert their rights peacefully by fishing illegally on the shore of Lake Bemidji a day before the May 15 walleye opener.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

McMillan says he believes the tribes may experience a backlash from the public. But he says he and other outdoors groups support the rule of law, and recognize those treaty rights that are upheld in federal courts.

"I don't know that there's much I can do about it, or the state can do about it, other than to get into another lawsuit," said McMillan. "They probably look at the precedent established with the Mille Lacs band and say, 'Hey, we're going to lose this one, too. So it's not worth the money and the tremendous effort.' I mean, that was a big deal.'"

The Leech Lake and White Earth bands say they plan to send a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty as early as this week, outlining their treaty rights claim. Tribal attorneys are hoping the state will negotiate with them without taking the matter to court.

A spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in a written statement there will be consequences for Leech Lake and White Earth members who break the law. The statement didn't provide any specifics.

A spokesman for the State Attorney General's office declined to comment, and officials with the Department of Natural Resources did not immediately respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Scott Strand, former Minnesota assistant attorney general, is one of the attorneys who defended the State of Minnesota in the Mille Lacs treaty case.

Lake Bemidji
Members of the White Earth and Leech Lake bands of Ojibwe plan to fish illegally May 14 -- a day before the state's walleye opener -- on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. Tribal leaders say the demonstration will highliight efforts to get tribal hunting and fishing rights recognized by the state.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Strand says based on his recollections of the 19th century treaties in question, he thinks the state might be able to make a solid argument opposing the northern Ojibwe bands' hunting and fishing rights claims.

"I think that it's probably fair to say ... that the state would be in a stronger position than it was in earlier cases," he said.

Strand says there's a difference between the 1855 treaty -- which covers the Leech Lake and White Earth bands -- and the treaties of 1837 and 1854, which cover Mille Lacs and another federal treaty case in northern Wisconsin.

"In 1837 and 1854, the treaties expressly reserved hunting and fishing and gathering rights for the Indian bands that were the signatories on the treaties. The 1855 treaty doesn't contain that kind of express reservation of rights," he said.

Strand says he thinks that could mean the Leech Lake and White Earth bands would have a tougher time if the case went to court.

Attorneys representing the northern Ojibwe say recent federal court cases have confirmed that while the Ojibwe people may have sold land to the federal government, they never gave up their rights to hunt and fish on that land.

It's unclear what will happen on May 14, when as many as 200 Ojibwe band members could line the south shore of Lake Bemidji. Leech Lake tribal attorneys say they are planning a peaceful demonstration. They say they want to avoid some of the racial tensions that ran high during the Mille Lacs treaty rights case.

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp says law enforcement will be on hand to maintain order. He notes that the tribal organizers are planning the event for daytime hours, and giving advance warning of their intentions, to avoid confrontation.

"We're in America, and people have rights ... to free speech and to exert their freedoms as they want to. And it's just our job in law enforcement to make sure all that happens in a peaceful manner," said Hodapp.

There's no word yet from outdoor sporting groups as to whether they plan a counter-demonstration.