Band members continue plans to assert tribal rights with protest

Boone Wadena
White Earth band member Boone Wadena says for years he's quietly exercised what he believes are his rights to hunt, fish and gather on off reservation lands in northern Minnesota. Wadena, pictured in front of his daughter's Naytauwash home, plans to participate in a public fishing demonstration sometime prior to the state walleye opener May 15.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Some members from the White Earth Band of Ojibwe still intend to demonstrate their off-reservation fishing rights, despite efforts by tribal government leaders from the White Earth and Leech Lake bands to discourage a treaty rights demonstration.

Organizers of the Great Anishinaabe Fish-Off call for tribal members to violate state law by fishing in several northern lakes prior to the state walleye fishing opener on May 15th.

"It's our inherent right to hunt, fish and gather -- to survive off the land," said Boone Wadena, a member of the White Earth Band. "That's the way I was raised and that's what I'm passing down to my kids and my grandkids."

For Wadena, the treaties his ancestors signed with the U.S. government are such a passion that he keeps a briefcase full of family history and photo-copied documents relating to a treaty signed in 1855. He said he's directly related to one of the chiefs who signed that treaty between northern Ojibwe bands and the U.S. government.

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Wadena claims that even though the treaty sold off a large section of northern Minnesota to the U.S. government, his ancestors never gave up the right to live off that land.


For generations, Wadena's family has discreetly exercised their perceived right to hunt and fish off the reservation. His father and uncles were arrested for it back in the 1970s.

Back then, Indians were less educated and didn't push the state hard enough to acknowledge treaty rights, he said.

Now, Wadena and others are preparing to bring attention to the issue by intentionally breaking state law and fishing for walleye sometime before the season opens.

"If we're going to make a statement here, yeah, let's go get arrested, you know," Wadena said. "If that's what we've got to do, then let's go get arrested and get this out of the way."

"If you want to go out there, go. If you get the ticket, take it. Go to court, plead not guilty and ask for a trial date."

The idea of a mass exercise of civil disobedience was first floated months ago. That's when members of the White Earth and Leech Lake bands began meeting jointly to discuss strategies for reasserting rights under the 1855 treaty.

Bob Shimek attended some of those committee meetings. Shimek, a treaty rights advocate since the 1970s, is organizing the Great Anishinaabe Fish-Off. The exact day and location of the demonstration hasn't been decided.

Shimek said the event will likely happen May 14th, probably on several northern lakes. He expects hundreds of band members will participate. Lake Bemidji is one possibility because it's located between the three largest Indian reservations in the state. Detroit Lake south of White Earth is also being considered.

The public demonstration will have a cultural element and will include traditional ceremony, Shimek said, adding that it will be peaceful and state Department of Natural Resources enforcement officers will know about it beforehand.

"I think that a public event where... tribal members can come together, harvest some fish and take those fish and have the ceremony that acknowledges this type of gift... is an important step," Shimek said. "It's also a celebration of a new era."

The demonstration is a show of unity between the White Earth and Leech Lake bands, Shimek said. Their goal is for tribal members to be cited for fishing law violations, and then to challenge the cases in court.

"If you want to go out there, go," Shimek said. "If you get the ticket, take it. Go to court, plead not guilty and ask for a trial date. Do not accept a plea, do not accept a dropping of the charges. Force it to trial."


The latest push for treaty-based hunting and fishing rights comes more than a decade after the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe won a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a separate treaty.

Shimek wants to avoid the political and racial divisiveness that happened at Mille Lacs. From his perspective, too many kids of every culture don't know treaty history, because it's often not taught in school.

"It's a product of the revisionist historians who have put the textbooks in the classrooms that deliberately leave these types of things out... trying to make these rights invisible, trying to make it so that people don't think about these things anymore," he said. "The silence is incredible from the educators in this state."

Shimek and other treaty rights supporters say aside from court challenges, another necessary part of the effort will be getting the U.S. government on their side. They believe their case is stronger if the bands and the federal government both agree about what the treaty between them means.

White Earth
The tribal governments at White Earth and Leech Lake aren't officially supportive of plans for a treaty based fishing rights demonstration prior to the state's walleye opener. But several band members are moving forward with planning an event they says could involved hundreds of tribal members.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Some say that's why the Mille Lacs case was successful. Attorneys with the U.S. Justice Department worked side by side with the tribe.

That sort of thing doesn't happen overnight.

Anita Fineday, chief tribal court judge at White Earth, said treaty rights cases are complex, time consuming and expensive.

The bands will need to plan their strategy carefully, said Fineday, who worked as solicitor general for the Mille Lacs Band when that case was filed in federal court. It will be up to them to prove the chiefs who signed the 1855 treaty never intended to give up the right to hunt, fish and gather on ceded lands.

"It takes years of research and establishing expert witness testimony to support those kinds of claims," Fineday said. "You need to have all those experts lined up, historians, ethno-historians, anthropologists... have all of their testimony in the works, and have kind of your research completed, and that takes years and it takes millions of dollars."

While individual band members work to organize their Great Anishinaabe Fish-off event, it's happening without official support from the White Earth or Leech Lake tribal governments.

Tribal leaders from both bands say they're committed to pursuing treaty rights, but they prefer a different approach. For now, they plan to do it through diplomacy.