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When Is a Treaty Not a Treaty?

A person's worth is only as good as his word, or at least that's what I've always thought, and I think the same should apply to one's country. So when is a treaty not a treaty?

For many years the philosophy around here was this: Fish were created by God and given to Minnesotans. Or, and this may even be in our state's constitution: It is a Minnesotan's inalienable right to catch Walleyes.

Enter the Native Americans. It took them over 500 years, but they have finally found a way to make some money - cater to the white man's gambling obsession. There are those who think making money from someone's misfortune is distressing, but the same people wouldn't so much as blink an eye at church bingo. Besides, I have never seen any Indians capturing white people and hauling them off to their casinos.

Maybe they should get "a real job" to support their families, some say. Sounds good. But first you need a college education. Hard to get when your parents still live in house with bad water and no electricity. Not every Indian lives like this. But when you compare the number of whites with the number of Indians, you end up with over half the Indian population still living in poverty. When is the last time you saw an Indian professional - doctor, lawyer, or businessman? Yes, they're out there, but then, when was the last time you saw an Indian?

So now, for the first time, we have the Ojibwe and Sioux nations in Minnesota finding the revenue to build schools, hospitals, and new housing on the reservations. They are self-sufficient once again (something the Europeans took away from them 200 years ago) and are buying back some of their own land, which they hope to preserve from clear-cutting and industrialization.

In Minnesota the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe had a 45-percent unemployment rate that fell to virtually zero after their casino opened. The Oneida Nation Casino near Green Bay became the largest minority-owned business in Wisconsin. An Oneida woman, Carol Cornelius, said, "When I walk into that casino, I'm overwhelmed. I think, 'My people did all this' ...We had a chance to get out of being perpetual victims and we took it."

Nobody complains around here about self-sufficiency. But then the Ojibwe pushed the panic button. With their new income, they suddenly had the money to go to court and fight for their old treaties to be honored. Back in the 1800's, when nearly all of their land was seized by the state, they were given certain hunting and fishing rights in exchange. These rights were never respected. So in 1990, the Mille Lacs Band filed an 1837 treaty rights lawsuit in federal court.

But in 1993, the Minnesota State Legislature rejected a negotiated agreement between the state and the Mille Lacs Band. The rejection committed the state to pursuing the agreement through the courts. Finally, in January of 1997, Judge Michael Davis ruled in favor of the Mille Lacs Band. The Ojibwe would now have the right to spear and net - (dare I say it) Walleyes!

The reaction around the state could have blown off the top of the state capitol.

Many of the state's fishing population, resort owners, and the DNR converged on the capitol steps, yelling and hollering and carrying signs. The governor announced on TV that he would spend millions on security at the designated lakes. "We will stop the rioting," he said, even though no one had mentioned the word.

Not wishing to start World War Three, the Ojibwe issued a statement that they would cut back on the original treaty amounts. Yes, it might mean a few less fish for everyone, you know, a little conservation, but you don't take the Walleye away from the folks in Minnesota.

The Ojibwe's offer was not accepted. The resort owners countered that they were going to go bust. They claimed that out-of-state tourists were canceling their reservations, stating they didn't want to come to Minnesota and be caught in the middle of an "Indian War."

Meanwhile, landowners in the Mille Lacs area insist the conflict is not about fish. Rather, it is their perception that a system of apartheid is emerging through the recognition of the sovereign status of the Mile Lacs Band. Furthermore, landowners who live on the disputed territory claim they live in fear that their property and other rights are in jeopardy should they find themselves subject to sovereign government.

I wonder if the landowners realize how much they have in common with the Indians? It might seem strange, but the same thing happend to the Indians back in 1837. And in the same place. Must be those aliens from Mars.

No matter. On April 9th, 1997, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a federal injunction until June on most Ojibwe spearfishing and netting. This 11th-hour injunction was based on an appeal brought by resort owners and property owners. And how timely! Just a month before the state's Fishing Opener - plenty of time for Minnesota to get its big profits.

So the Indians have lost again, and everyone feels safe. Until June at least. When it will start all over. But maybe not...

Plans are going ahead for spearing and netting in June, but the Mille Lacs Band has asked the Witness For Nonviolence Organization to accompany spearers.

Across Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin, supporters of Indian treaty rights are recruiting volunteer "witnesses" who will be trained to endure verbal abuse, defuse violence if possible and document it if not.

"They're kind of a physical buffer between the spearers and those who might protest, and they document what goes on with testimony and cameras," says author Jim Northrup, a Minnesota Ojibwe from the Fond Du Lac Band. "I have been grateful for the presence of witnesses during my spearing outings. They do it in a nonviolent way, and I know that some, as part of their training, swear at each other."

The organization got plenty of practice between 1987 and 1992, as protesting anglers got nasty in Northern Wisconsin when treaty rights were finally honored in the state. John Laforge of Luck, Wisconsin, was an early member:

"The witnesses went out in hope of having a dialogue with the protesters and exposing them to the fact that the numbers of fish taken annually by spearing is small in comparison to those taken by sport anglers," he said. "But it turned out to be impossible to have a dialogue, because a lot of protesters were in a mood to yell and scream, and alcohol was involved."

Kathy Anderson of Duluth sums things up this way: "We're talking about a century-old injustice, and I don't think it's ever too late to right that. The Indian people are a small group, so it's up to the rest of us to help out."

When is a treaty not a treaty? You tell me.


Former Minnesota Vikings football coach Bud Grant, in a March 30 letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, had this to say about the Minnesota district court’s ruling in favor of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s treaty rights: “We are behind at half-time, but the appeals process, and hence the game, isn’t over.”

He was referring to “the game” he and his teammates at the neo-conservative group Proper Economic Resource Management (PERM) hope to win against the Mille Lacs and several other Ojibwe bands in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Mille Lacs band filed a lawsuit against the State of Minnesota in 1990, claiming the state government was denying the band its treaty-guaranteed rights to fish, hunt, and gather - unregulated by state laws and according to the band’s own conservation plans - throughout the east-central territory it ceded to the United States in an 1837 treaty.

The band won in district court earlier this year. But Grant, and the State of Minnesota, wanted a replay. The State, joined by nine counties and eight landowners, appealed to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed in April to hear the case. On August 26, the court’s three-judge panel unanimously ruled in favor of the band, and upheld all previous rulings in the dispute. The favorable decision means tribal members will be spearfishing on Mille Lacs and other lakes as early as this fall.

Of course, the losing parties could appeal the decision to the full Appeals Court or the U.S. Supreme Court. Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson vowed that the state will “actively pursue all avenues for appeal.” To date, the State has spent around $3 million of taxpayer’s dollars in litigation. Last spring, Governor Carlson persuaded the state legislature to commit $6 million for extra law enforcement to prevent the kind of violent boat landing eruptions that occurred between tribal members and non-Native sportspeople in Wisconsin during the late 1980s and early 1990s from taking place in Minnesota.

For their part, Grant and PERM members who sided with the State are part of a larger movement to do away with treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, and Federal Indian Policy altogether. As Mark Rotz, PERM’s chairman, wrote in the April 1996 issue of PERM’s newsletter, “It will take a long time to change Federal Indian Policy...the very fact that we have an ‘Indian policy’ is racist and divisive for our country.”

Recently, PERM’s public relations machine has been trying hard to downplay the idea that they are, as columnist, Nick Coleman of the St. Paul Pioneer Press called them, “Bud-Heads, Yahoos, and Bony-headed Walleye Worshippers.” (Feb 10)

But to have a shot in scoring on the field and in court at all, it falls on PERM to answer a more serious accusation: that its rank and file are themselves racist...

(Reprinted with permission from The Circle, vol. 18-No 9, September, 1997, by Mark Aamot)

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Copyright ©1997 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

May 20, 1997