by Jeff Armstrong
Nearly 200 members and supporters of the indigenous Anishinaabe nation gathered on the shores of Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota on May 14 to assert their treaty rights under U.S. and international law to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice free of state regulation. While generations of Anishinaabeg (referred to in treaties as Chippewa) have exercised their treaty rights covertly on an individual basis, last month’s protest fish-in was the first major collective action in nearly 20 years.
Defying threats of arrest by the state DNR, warnings of a white backlash in the local media, and attempts by some tribal officials to derail the event, several boatloads of Anishinaabeg set nets in the off-reservation lake, while others cast lines from the shore on the day preceding the state fishing opener. The DNR avoided open confrontation, seizing nets and fish but not boats and automobiles, a common practice of state conservation officers in the past. Netting citations were referred to the Beltrami County Attorney for possible prosecution on gross misdemeanor charges, which have yet to be filed as Socialist Action goes to press.
Aaron White, Sr., who was invited to the event by an elder and emerged as a leader on the shore and on the lake, noted the importance of collective action.
“It takes more than one person to say this is wrong, this is not right,” said White. “We are the people. If we’re not the people, we’re nobody, we’re one single individual out here. If there weren’t all this press out here, all this radio and TV, I’d be sitting in jail. They’d have pulled me out of the boat right there and put me into jail.”
Media attention notwithstanding, however, White said a DNR agent pulled out a knife and cut the net away from him inches away from his fingers when he refused to immediately relinquish it.
Treaty rights activists maintain that the state has no legal leg to stand on, but is rather continuing a long pattern of harassment and intimidation. While the Anishinaabeg have clearly outlined their position on the issue, supported by a 35-page legal analysis by law school professor and National Lawyers Guild member Peter Erlinder, the state has yet to issue even a sketchy counterargument. In recent years, the state has aggressively enforced its conservation laws against the Anishinaabeg in the ceded territories but dropped charges when the defendants asserted their treaty rights.
“They haul ’em into court and they drop charges. That’s harassment,” said Bob Shimek, an organizer of the event. “The United States Supreme Court has already ruled on the treaty rights in the 1855 ceded territory. I don’t know what the state of Minnesota doesn’t understand. It’s right there in black and white.”
Bemidji ACLU activist Audrey Thayer said pro-bono lawyers are on hand to represent anticipated defendants in the case.
The Anishinaabeg claim their rights under an 1855 Treaty with the U.S. government that opened the door to white settlement in northern Minnesota. Minnesota officials have long contended that the 1855 Treaty implicitly relinquished Anishinaabe hunting and fishing rights, but that argument was blown out of the water by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Minnesota v. Mille Lacs in 1999. The court in that case specifically ruled that the 1855 Treaty did not surrender any treaty rights.
A Wilder Research study last year found that 88% of Native reservation residents strongly agree that federal recognition of treaty rights is important, while 12% agree less strongly. More surprisingly, however, 65% of their non-Native neighbors agree, though only 21% agree strongly. This trend was reflected in the fact that anti-treaty activists, who largely remained silent, were far outnumbered by non-Natives who came to the rally in solidarity with the Anishinaabeg. Treaty rights protesters who held signs and banners along a busy road into town similarly reported that they received far more honks of support than expressions of racism in a town not noted for harmonious race relations.
While a growing number of non-Natives may be willing to come to terms with history, some tribal officials seem to possess an institutional instinct for accommodation. White Earth Reservation Business Committee chair Erma Vizenor and Leech Lake secretary-treasurer Mike Bongo quickly sought to break up tribal unity on the issue and cancel the May 14 action when it received unexpected media attention. Vizenor, who is the subject of a recall petition on her reservation for opening enrollment to non-Natives and “establishing an unconstitutional and illegal court system” and police force, may have been courting state political support to prop up an increasingly repressive reservation regime.
Bongo, who is a longshot for reelection in a tribal vote this month, may have been grasping for a polarizing issue against popular tribal chairman Archie LaRose, whose family has been at the forefront of decades of struggle against state jurisdiction and tribal complicity.
But Bongo is unlikely to find many takers, as the Anishinaabeg appear determined to remake history in their favor.
Curtis Buckanaga said a new generation of leaders is emerging to challenge the status quo on and off the reservations, calling for the formation of an indigenous political party.
“They’re not beating up on the same old Indians. We’re young, we’re the new life of this struggle. In 1934 they robbed us of our traditional governments and replaced [them] with the [Indian] Reorganization Act. They gave us to the vulnerabilities of the Democratic Party,” said Buckanaga. “[Tribal leaders] are not even standing up for us. They’re sitting down and nodding their heads with the white guys.”
The simmering conflict over treaty rights with the state also has political implications for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has been mentioned as a potential presidential nominee for the Republican party. Pawlenty has taken a strong stance against Native sovereignty which may serve him politically at the state level, but he clearly does not want to be in the center of a nationally-publicized racial conflict of the sort that took place in Wisconsin in the 1980s, after the Anishinaabeg prevailed in federal court with the Voigt decision.
Predicting a “long, hot summer,” American Indian Movement activist Dennis Banks pointed to the fundamental inequity of the fact that non-Natives can fish on his home reservation with a state license and without being subject to tribal jurisdiction, yet he is subject to state criminal penalties for fishing on state land with a reservation license, despite treaty rights more than 150 years old.
“You’ve seen today these people confiscating our nets, citing people, threatening them with jail, but when people come and fish in our lakes, we cannot impound their boats, we cannot confiscate their cars or their trailers,” said Banks.