DNR warns Chippewa group against treaty rights test

Updated: 7:07 p.m. | Posted: 5:55 p.m.

A group of Chippewa Indians has notified Gov. Mark Dayton's administration that it plans to harvest wild rice without state licenses to assert rights the members believe they hold under an 1855 treaty that ceded a large part of northern Minnesota to the federal government, drawing a warning Tuesday from the state Department of Natural Resources.

They plan to gather wild rice on Hole-in-the-Day Lake in Nisswa on Aug. 27 and are urging conservation officers not to issue citations or seize their wild rice or harvesting equipment, Frank Bibeau, an attorney for the 1855 Treaty Authority, which is organizing the event, said by phone Tuesday.

The group is independent of the state's tribal governments and includes members of the federally recognized Leech Lake, White Earth and Mille Lacs bands, and the non-recognized Sandy Lake Band, Bibeau said. Its chairman is Arthur "Archie" LaRose, secretary-treasurer of the Leech Lake Band, who wrote to Dayton Aug. 7 to notify him of the harvest plans.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr responded Tuesday by saying in a letter to LaRose that the band members are welcome to harvest wild rice off their reservations within the ceded territory, but they must purchase state licenses like everyone else or risk criminal prosecution and seizure of their rice and equipment.

Landwehr said the state's position continues to be that the bands have no special hunting, fishing or gathering rights off their reservations within the ceded territory -- a position Bibeau disputes.

Unlike the 1837 treaty between the federal government and the Mille Lacs Band, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 1999 and covers a different territory in east-central Minnesota, the 1855 treaty doesn't explicitly guarantee off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering rights. Bibeau said group members believe the 1855 treaty backed by case law and federal statutes protects those rights anyway.

But Bibeau said they don't want to go to court and hope that the planned harvest spurs discussions instead. While conservation officers have seized wild rice and fishing nets from Ojibwe asserting rights under the 1855 treaty before, he said prosecutors have been reluctant to press charges that could set precedents.

The letter also expressed concern about plans by Canada-based Enbridge Energy for oil pipelines across the territory, as well as the struggling walleye population on Mille Lacs Lake.

"From pipelines, to wild rice and walleye, the State of Minnesota does not appear to be protectively regulating the natural resources or pipelines, but rather defining acceptable levels of degradation in the land of sky blue waters for the profits of foreign corporations," said the letter, signed by LaRose and Sandra Skinaway, the group's secretary-treasurer and chairwoman of the Sandy Lake Band.

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