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Tribal members say treaty rights protest a success

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DNR talks to Aaron White
Aaron White Sr. (left) and Tuffy Isham (center) are confronted by a Minnesota conservation officer (right) Friday afternoon over fishing nets White Sr. dropped into Lake Bemidji during a protest over off-reservation fishing rights.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

Nearly 200 Ojibway tribal members gathered in Bemidji Friday afternoon to demand the state recognize their rights to hunt and fish.

The Leech Lake and White Earth tribal members say an 1855 treaty gives them the right to hunt and fish without regard for state regulations or seasons. 

In response, the state Department of Natural Resources seized nets set in the lake, but made no arrests. Event organizers say the event was a success. 

The crowd cheered as Aaron White Sr. pushed a small flat bottomed boat into Lake Bemidji. White was on his way to pull in a gill net he set earlier in the day. But before he could row out to the net, DNR conservation officers intercepted him and confiscated the net. 

White returned to shore angrily brandishing a short piece of net.  

"He just started pulling my net and then he took his knife and he cut it," White said. "[He said] 'Give me the net.' I said 'no, it's my net; I've got a treaty right.' And he took his knife and he cut my net." 

The DNR also took the fish that were in the net. Treaty Rights event organizer Bob Shimek tried to negotiate with DNR Major Roger Tietz for return of the fish.

Lake Bemidji protest
Well over 100 people converged on Lake Bemidji waterfront park during a protest of off-reservation fishing rights by Native Americans Friday in Bemidji, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

"Put 'em in cold storage and when it's time you can give 'em back to the rightful owners," Shimek said. "That would be a courteous gesture."

Responded Tietz: "We'll consider that option."

Tietz said fishing with a net is a gross misdemeanor. Although conservation officers did not cite any tribal members, he said some may be charged later. 

"What we will do is we will prepare a case file for the prosecutor," Tietz said.  We'll turn it over to them. They ultimately have the decision to charge, if they want to."

The tribal members want to be charged as any violations would be the basis for a lawsuit demanding hunting and fishing rights they say are guaranteed in the 1855 treaty with the U.S. Government.   

Aaron White Sr.
Aaron White Sr. (2nd from right) points to a Minnesota conservation officer after the officer cut his fishing lines Friday afternoon in Lake Bemidji. White Sr. was joined by Tuffy Isham (far right) in a protest over off-reservation fishing rights.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks, who also placed a net in Lake Bemidji, said he looks forward to going to court. 

"We're going to move immediately to go to federal court," Banks said. "If we go to federal court the state will lose dramatically. They will not win this fight.

"I hope the state of Minnesota understands what they're going to lose if they go the full distance," he said. "And we are prepared to go the distance."

Tribal members will continue to violate state fishing laws until their treaty rights are recognized, Banks said.

There was no counter protest, and no apparent confrontations. A few non-Indian anglers watched quietly but declined to be interviewed. 

Bemidji resident and Leech Lake tribal member Darrell Partridge  said he heard a few shouts as he cast his fishing line from pier along the lakeshore.   

"I've had a few swear words thrown at me from passing cars," Partridge said. "They told me to get a life. This is my life, you know what I mean? This is my heritage, my culture, this is who we are."

Tribal officials from Leech Lake and White Earth wanted to avoid confrontation. White Earth Tribal Council Member Terry Tibbetts said he was pleased with the peaceful demonstration. 

"We're not doing this to kick sand in the governor's face," Tibbetts said. "What we want to do is be respectful. Practice every type of restraint we can. We don't want it to end up in state court.  We don't want to take it that route. We're asking the state and federal government to step in and say 'hey, we recognize your rights.' "

This week, the White Earth Tribal Council passed a conservation code that applies to all tribal members fishing or hunting off the reservation.

The council wants that code to supersede state regulations for tribal members. It also is asking the state to agree to prosecute any tribal members who violate the conservation code in tribal court, rather than state court. 

The next step in the dispute will depend on Beltrami County prosecutors, who will decide whether charges will be filed against tribal members who dropped nets in Lake Bemidji.