How zebra mussels spurred the Red Lake Nation push to return tribal lands

Zebra mussels pose a serious threat to walleye on both Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file photo

Tribal nations across Minnesota are pressing to recover lands reserved for them under treaties signed by the U.S. government. While this has been described as a movement under the broad term “land back” the issues on the ground are specific to individual tribal nations. Red Lake Nation, north of Bemidji, is a prime example. 

Recent bills introduced in the state legislature propose to transfer a mile-wide buffer of land around Upper Red Lake, including all state-owned land and property within Red Lake State Forest to Red Lake Nation. Many non-Red Lake band members in that area believe that would hurt the local economy — much of which involves recreational fishing. 

In a statement released last week, Red Lake says it has no intention of limiting access to the lake for recreational fishing.  

While the dispute over the area goes back more than a century, the discovery of invasive species in the lake led the tribe to accelerate its decision to press forward with its claim. 

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In 2019, a state Department of Natural Resources study of Upper Red Lake found zebra mussel larvae.

The thumbnail-sized mollusk is an invasive species threatening the health of walleye lakes across the state. Zebra mussels can be especially bad for walleye lakes as they filter out algae, a vital walleye food. Also, water infested with zebra mussels can be so clear there’s no place for young fish to hide.

Red Lake Nation operates a large, successful commercial fishery on Lower Red Lake, and the tribe relies on a walleye for commercial and subsistence fishing.

Red Lake’s Legal Counsel Joe Plumer says zebra mussels pose a serious threat to walleye on both Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake.

Zebra mussels
Dean Fisher holds a handful of zebra mussels along the shore of Lake Mille Lacs at Fisher's Resort.
Derek Montgomery for MPR | 2017

“The DNR told us they had neither the money nor the manpower to address zebra mussels in Upper Red Lake,” said Plumer. 

There’s a pattern in the way the state DNR has left popular walleye lakes vulnerable to zebra mussels, including Mille Lacs Lake, Leech Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish, says Plumer.

Red Lake Secretary Sam Strong said, “We want to express our sovereignty and take a more active role in stewardship of the lake to combat zebra mussel and other invasive species.”

The Minnesota DNR confirms the DNR Commissioner did present its zebra mussel findings on to Red Lake five years ago.

However, the Minnesota DNR Communications Director Gail Nosek says the DNR was unaware the 2019 meeting prompted Red Lake Nation’s decision to move forward with a legal claim.

“Following the discovery of zebra mussel larvae in 2019, Minnesota DNR and Red Lake DNR came together and developed a multifaceted joint work plan focused on: watercraft inspection, monitoring, education and outreach, and communications,” said Nosek.

Red Lake Secretary Sam Strong said the tribe’s joint work plan with the state DNR is important to the tribe, but he’s concerned the state’s program isn’t enough to protect the lake from zebra mussels. Strong says that the state DNR can check only a small percentage of boats launched on public landings along Upper Red Lake.

If the state bill were passed, Strong says the Red Lake’s DNR could inspect and decontaminate those fishing boats.  

Upper Red Lake dispute stretches back more than a century

Bemidji State University history professor Anton Treuer is the author of “Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe.” His research follows the story of Red Lake Nation from the mid-18th century to the present.  

It also includes the signing of an agreement with the United States in 1889. Treuer says Red Lake chiefs negotiated for exclusive use of the lakes because they believed it necessary to their ability to make a living for themselves and future generations.

“The legal standard across the United States of America for evaluating treaties is, ‘What was the understanding that Native people had at the time it was signed,’” said Treuer. “There’s no doubt that the people of Red Lake understood that they would keep all of Upper Red Lake and all of Lower Red Lake when at the signed they signed the Nelson Act. There’s no doubt.”

Map of lake01
A map created by Red Lake Nation outlines what the tribe argues is the original boundaries of Red Lake Nation under an agreement signed by the U.S. Government in 1889.
Courtesy of Red Lake Nation

Treuer says multiple sources recount a moment when Henry Rice, a prominent figure in Minnesota politics, acting on behalf of Congress, agreed to terms set out by Red Lake’s chiefs. They recount Rice swore a promise to Red Lake chiefs, they would reserve both lakes for their exclusive use.

Distrustful of the U.S. Government a Red Lake Chief Medwe-ganoonind drew a circle around Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake, including a 1-mile buffer around Upper Red Lake.

Somewhere the map disappeared. What happened to it? “We can’t capital ‘K’ say we know,” said Treuer.

Later when a map was added to an official record of the treaty negotiations — the reservation boundary split off Upper Red Lake and the eastern most portion of the lakeshore remained outside the reservation’s boundaries. Since that time, generations of Red Lake leaders have argued Upper Red Lake was unjustly taken from the tribe.

Map of lake02
A map created by Red Lake Nation describing the present day boundaries of the Red Lake Nation.
Courtesy of Red Lake Nation

Opposition to the bill

Robyn Dwight, president of the Upper Red Lake Area Association believes the bills at the legislature could reduce access to the lake and could greatly damage the local tourist economy.

“This legislation would upset a relationship which would be devastating for business on the forests, the parks, the farmland and the public waters,” said Dwight. She described it as “a magnet for tourism around the continent. The local economy from here to the Twin Cities would feel the pain.”

Dwight says her group staunchly supports keeping the lake healthy. She points to the association’s participation in local campaigns and state sponsored projects working on the issue.

“We value the water, and we take our responsibility as steward of this lake very seriously. Closing this lake to a segment of the society is divisive and destructive, which is why we strongly and unanimously oppose the current legislation and any efforts to turn back time despite the costs.”

A man talks at a press conference -1
Samuel Strong, Red Lake Nation’s tribal secretary, speaks at a press conference.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News 2023

Red Lake Secretary Sam Strong said the proposed state legislation does not include any portion of Upper Red Lake itself.

Strong says the larger claim to Upper Red Lake or any change to the reservation’s boundaries would  involve the federal government. Only the federal government has the authority to make agreements with tribal nations or alter reservation boundaries.

Strong said Red Lake is pressing ahead on a strategy at the federal level for the return of Upper Red Lake. He expects that process will likely take years to accomplish.

“We do not have years to wait if we hope to protect both lakes from invasive species,” says Strong. “The time is now.”

Strong said Red Lake DNR is equipped to manage lands around Upper Red Lake and that it has worked on stewardship of land and water resources in the area for decades.

A legislative deadline arriving in a few weeks will determine whether the proposed legislation will move ahead this year or wait until a future session to advance.