Mixed reaction to Ojibwe fishing protest from outdoors groups

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

There's mixed reaction from Minnesota outdoors groups on plans by some northern Ojibwe band members to assert hunting and fishing rights they believe are guaranteed by a treaty from the mid-1800s.

Some members of the White Earth and Leech Lake bands say they plan to break state law by fishing for walleye prior to the May 15 season opener.

Some sporting groups aren't happy with the latest effort by Ojibwe band members to reclaim fishing and hunting rights off their reservations.

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, says he worries that allowing hunting and fishing outside of regulations established by the Department of Natural Resources could be harmful to fish and wildlife resources.

Johnson is also concerned that allowing special rights for one group of people would be difficult to manage.

"There just comes a time when we all need to live and work and recreate together. No white, red, black, tan divisions," Johnson said. "Times are changing and times change reality ... and we get more people and we get less public space and we get a higher responsibility because of those things to work together."

The White Earth and Leech Lake bands have been working on a set of draft regulations that tribal members hunting or fishing off reservation would have to follow. Tribal leaders haven't voted on the plans, nor do they support plans by some band members to fish prior to the walleye opener.

Lake Bemidji
Last week, some members of the Leech Lake and White Earth bands of Ojibwe had planned on challenging state fishing laws by fishing on the shore of Lake Bemidji the day before the state's walleye season opener. Tribal leaders quickly backed away from that idea. They favor taking a diplomatic approach with state officials.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Vern Wagner is vice president of the Minnesota group Anglers for Habitat, though Wagner says he doesn't speak for the organization. He says he thinks the state should honor treaties between the U.S. government and the Ojibwe.

"I'm sure I'm not the typical fisherman who thinks that everybody should follow the DNR rules," Wagner said. "I believe that if somebody is wanting to practice a cultural way of angling, I think there should be some room for it. From what I can tell, they're trying to use fishing as a way to reconnect with something that I suspect they feel is missing in their life."

Wagner says that since a fishing license is only about $17, he doesn't think allowing Ojibwe band members to exercise their treaty rights would be much of a burden on the state. And, Wagner says, since the numbers of Minnesotans who fish is on the decline, he's happy to see more people taking an interest, no matter who they are.

Band members are calling the treaty rights demonstration "The Great Anishinaabe Fish-Off." They say they haven't decided when or where the pre-opener fishing event will happen, but that it would likely be on several lakes on May 14. Organizers say they'll notify the DNR of their intentions beforehand.

DNR officials say they'll be prepared for whatever happens. Mike Carroll is the agency's northwest regional director. Carroll says he hasn't heard from anyone yet.

"We're just waiting. We will treat this at this point in time as any normal fishing opener and we will respectfully and equally enforce the game and fish laws of the state of Minnesota, so that's where we are," he said.

Organizers of the Great Anishinaabe Fish-Off say their goal is for band members to receive citations for fishing out of season, and then to challenge the citations in court.

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