Tribe allows Red Lake fishing to resume after 2 men were lost

Red Lake Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki, center, opens a meeting on Wed.
Red Lake Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki, center, opens a meeting on Wednesday for tribal members to comment on whether fishing should be permitted on Lower Red Lake and Upper Red Lake.
Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer

Updated: 5:42 p.m. | Posted: 10:30 a.m.

There's a traditional belief on the Red Lake Indian Reservation that when someone drowns, it's because the lake has a point to make.

"When there's an accident on the lake," said Red Lake Nation Fisheries Director Russ Brenny, "that's the lake telling us it's angry. We're taking too much."

On Nov. 6, 2017, two anglers — both employees of Brenny's fishery — were gillnetting on the lake when their boat capsized. One man was able to swim to shore, but Deland Beaulieu, 29, and a 17-year-old boy were lost. They have not yet been found.

For the last two months, as dive teams and aircraft searched for the bodies, no other anglers ventured out onto the lake. But now fishing is back open. The Tribal council voted Wednesday to let anglers back on the ice.

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On most other lakes in Minnesota, tragedies don't stop people from fishing in the first place. But things work differently on the Red Lake reservation, Brenny said.

"In the native tradition, we suspend fishing," Brenny said. "I don't think anyone made a call. It's just the way it is. Everyone knows it."

For weeks, Brenny said, he's been organizing potlucks at the fishery. Everyone eats, and then they make up a plate and bring it down to the water. An elder burns sage and says a traditional prayer.

"There are a lot of ceremonies going on up here," he said, "to calm the lake."

If they return some of the food they took from the lake, Brenny said, maybe it won't be so angry. Maybe it won't take any more anglers.

Staying off the water has been hard. The Red Lake Nation Fisheries is a commercial operation, run by the tribe. It processes almost 1 million pounds of walleye every year, and dozens of local people make a living catching fish, Brenny said.

In the two months it has been closed, Brenny said, the operation lost about 150,000 pounds of walleye, and anglers lost their income.

But on Wednesday, the Red Lake Nation's tribal council reopened the lake. Brenny said he's conflicted about the decision. He needs more fish. His facility is almost out of product. But he knew the lost anglers well. He wants be respectful of them, and of the lake.

In the end, he said he thinks the council made the right call. "They spoke to the families of the two gentlemen we lost," he said. "The family was OK with it. They thought, 'OK, maybe if they open the up lake, somebody will find them.'"

On an average winter, about 700 people scatter across Lower Red Lake to ice fish.