Leech Lake leaders want to halt fishing protest

Lake Bemidji
Members of the White Earth and Leech Lake bands of Ojibwe said they plan to fish illegally May 14 -- a day before the state's walleye opener -- on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. Tribal Chairman Archie LaRose said he's not in favor of a plan for tribal members to fish the day before the season opens.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Leaders on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation say they will work to resolve differences over treaty rights through conversation with state officials and diplomacy, instead of a demonstration before the state's fishing opener next month.

Tribal Chairman Archie LaRose said he's not in favor of a plan for tribal members to fish the day before the season opens.

Earlier this week, officials from the Leech Lake and White Earth bands announced plans to ignore state law, and fish along the shore of Lake Bemidji on May 14 -- the day before the walleye opener -- to assert the fishing rights they say are guaranteed to them by 19th century treaties.

LaRose says the band's attorneys announced that plan prematurely, since it had not been reviewed by members of the Leech Lake Tribal Council before it was announced.

LaRose is urging his band members to cancel any plans they have to participate in the demonstration.

The White Earth band is also backing off its earlier strategy, and suggesting a more low-key approach. Terry Tibbetts, a White Earth tribal council member, says the band isn't looking for a confrontation.

"Things start rolling a little too fast. People get antsy, get jumpy, you know, and want to go, go, go right at it. But we're making sure that we do everything right," Tibbetts said. "We don't want to kick sand in the governor's face. That's not the intention here. The intention is for us to begin exercising our inherent rights."

Tibbetts said there will likely still be tribal members fishing against state law on May 14, but he said it will be a quieter effort.

"We're planning on going ahead and exercising our rights, but we'll do it where we want to do it, not at a set time or set date," he said. "It's not going to be a public demonstration."

Leaders from White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake plan to talk about the treaty issue at a meeting May 6, in Mahnomen.

The push by the northern Minnesota bands -- which include some 30,000 members -- comes more than a decade after the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe won a similar claim in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.

White Earth and Leech Lake could have made their claim with the Mille Lacs band back in the '90s. But Leech Lake tribal attorney Frank Bibeau says the bands were distracted at the time by infighting and tribal government corruption.

This new claim follows the same argument used in the cases won by the Mille Lacs and northern Wisconsin bands. Dale Green, who works on legal issues for Leech Lake, says the treaties from the 1800s may have sold off land to the federal government, but he says the Ojibwe people never gave up their rights to hunt and fish on that land.

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