Minnesota's inaugural regulated wolf hunt, set to begin Saturday, is being received with sadness by many Ojibwe people.
The wolf plays a central role in the Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe creation story, in which man and wolf traveled the world together and spoke the same language. Wolves are often described as family members. That's what makes a wolf hunt so painful to many Ojibwe, who hold the wolf sacred.
"It's viewed as a brotherhood. That's probably the best way I've heard it explained," said Thomas Howes, natural resources program manager for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. "That's the philosophy behind it."
For them, killing the animals is unthinkable. To guard against it, all seven of Minnesota's Ojibwe bands forbid wolf hunting on their lands. They've also issued strongly worded proclamations declaring wolf "sanctuaries," banning wolf hunting by anyone, Indian or non-Indian, within their boundaries.
"Certainly we'll be keeping a close eye on all of our borders," said Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band west of Duluth. "And we are asking non-band member hunters to respect the outer boundaries of the Fond du Lac reservation and not hunt within our borders."
The problem is that the Fond du Lac Band only owns about a third of the land within its borders. The rest is a checkerboard of private, county, state and federal land.
On some other reservations, tribes own even less. The Leech Lake band only owns 4 percent of land within the reservation. White Earth, 10 percent. Only the Red Lake and Grand Portage tribes own all, or virtually all, of the land on their reservations.
Diver said the Fond du Lac band is reviewing its legal options to stop hunting within its borders.
"We do have quite a bit of regulatory authority within our reservations, so we're trying to see what we may do to further discourage that activity in our borders," she said.
Earlier this year, the Fond du Lac band and others asked the state of Minnesota to close their reservations to wolf hunting. They argued it would still leave the vast majority of the state's wolf range open to hunting. But state Department of Natural Resources officials denied their request.
In Wisconsin, however, natural resources officials did agree to close that state's Ojibwe reservations to hunting. Minnesota's refusal to do so irks Diver.
"To me it's a truly sad day in Minnesota, when tribal-state relations have been [eclipsed] by the state of Wisconsin, because there was a time when that was fractious and violent over there," she said. "They are certainly right now an example to the Minnesota DNR in terms of working with their own tribal people."
Wisconsin also reserved 85 wolf-hunting licenses out of the total state hunting quota of 201 wolves for the state's six Ojibwe bands, although the tribes have said they don't intend to hunt any wolves. A 1983 court decision affirmed that the bands retained hunting and gathering rights off their reservations, a ruling that sparked anger among some white hunters in northern Wisconsin.
But Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said private landowners within reservation borders should have the right to hunt. Landwehr said it's not the department's job to consider cultural arguments while managing the wolf hunt. Instead, he said, its purpose is to manage a biologically sustainable wolf population.
"Frankly, it's not necessary for the biology, for sustaining the population, to close the public lands within there," Landwehr said. "So we acknowledge and respect their desire to close the tribal lands, but declined to close the other private or public lands."
Landwehr said he has spoken to Diver and officials on the White Earth reservation and is optimistic they won't overstep their authority.
"From the state's opinion, if a band tried to assert hunting control or trapping control on non-tribal lands, they would be in violation of the law," Landwehr said. "So at some point they would end up in court, if they try to enforce that."
Both the Fond du Lac and White Earth bands say they don't intend to close roads, or confiscate hunters' guns.
Michael Swan, director of natural resources at White Earth, said has told his conservation officers to use caution when informing wolf hunters of the tribe's position on hunting. They should "use respect, inquire about it [and] let them know that this is the position of the tribe," he said.
If the hunters are on tribal land, they will be asked to leave, Swan said.
"If they're not, we're not telling them to leave, just get them well aware of it," he said.
While the bands acknowledge their legal authority over land they don't own may be limited, they still intend to make a point. White Earth resident Bob Shimek is organizing a picket of the reservation boundaries this weekend that he hopes will draw a couple of hundred participants.
"First of all [we want] to welcome people to the White Earth sanctuary," Shimek said. "Second, we're going to remind people, no wolf hunting allowed within the exterior boundaries of the White Earth Indian reservation."
But that's a fine line Shimek is walking, since the band owns only 10 percent of the land within those reservation boundaries.
"This is a typical clash of cultures," Shimek said.
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