A court ruling that allows for separate laws for separate races hasn't worked anywhere

By Bill Lawrence

I used to be an absolute supporter of Indian treaty rights until about five years ago when I began questioning their current relevance to Indian people. Why should we support a tribe's treaty rights claims, when today they probably benefit more non-Indians (in the form of lawyers, managers, public relations people, lobbyists, bureaucrats, etc.) than Indians (given that few have any interest in using treaty rights), and cause a lot of divisiveness in our local communities.

My position on this issue has evolved since my own treaty rights case 11 years ago against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources over their regulation of the transport and sale of commercially-caught fish from the Red Lake Reservation. After fighting the DNR to a draw in court over the issue, I started to take a more critical look at what treaty rights mean to Indian people and others as we approach the new millennium.

Considering that Indian treaty rights are primarily creations of the 19th Century as part of the government's policy in the settlement of America, I question their efficacy today 128 years after the last treaty was entered into in 1871. Certainly if a treaty right has value and is considered a property right, the tribe or band is entitled to adequate compensation for its taking. As an avid hunter and angler, I am familiar with the benefits and costs of exercising treaty hunting and fishing rights.

Over 80% of Indian people in Minnesota and in the Country now live off the reservation, and have no interest in using treaty rights. In the modern age, and especially in the era of reservation gambling, government programs and welfare, there is a miniscule number of Indian people living on the reservation who need or want treaty rights either.

This is not to say that we should just give up treaty rights that still exist, but their worth to us as individuals is growing less and less every day. Sure there are those that make a big deal of claiming that we need them to retain, or regain, our culture and traditions, but for too many, treaty rights lawsuits are mainly useful for political maneuvering and holding onto a victim mentality. By focusing tribal concerns on treaty rights, our tribal leaders bind us to the past and keep us in a state of dependency. They like us to be "treaty Indians" looking to the past, rather than free and independent Indians looking to the future.

The Mille Lacs treaty case has caused a lot of us to re-examine our views on treaty rights. Like a TV movie, it's had all the elements of a good drama. With the Mille Lacs case, we had wannabee Indians pushing a small recently-wealthy gambling tribe that is well-stocked with federal programs to pursue treaty rights that are unnecessary, causing divisiveness and ill-will throughout the community. Special hunting and fishing rights, if exercised, will probably cause more harm that they are worth. Now that they have won, it would be smart for the Band to stop the division of our communities, and implement the same game laws as the State.

Certainly the decision released yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court was a victory for those who were pushing for the treaty rights. But it was narrowly won by the slightest of margins, with great contentiousness, and costing more pain than joy.

A court ruling that allows for separate laws for separate races on the same land hasn't worked anywhere else, and will not work here. It is a ruling that seems to be based more on feelings of guilt than on law, reason, history, reality or truth. wjl

(Editor's Note: Bill Lawrence is publisher of Ojibwe News/Native American Press and member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe.)