If I Were a State or Tribal Leader

By Joe Fellegy

I’ve pondered how state and tribal governments (with plenty of outside help) have sentenced Mille Lacs to ongoing controversy. I refer to the hassles, costs, and uncertainties over the playing out of “treaty fishing,” plus the tribal/federal effort to resurrect the old long-off-the-maps, three-township 1855 Mille Lacs Indian reservation.

What caring state or tribal leader could sit on such a miserable heap and remain unmoved? Yet I haven’t heard a high official acknowledge that fisheries management and tourism walk tightropes, that the economic and social costs are scandalous, and that the overall mood of the place suffers.

While commentators reflect on the uncertainties of terrorism and possible war with Iraq, we at Mille Lacs have experienced our own endless debates, tensions, and apprehensions for a decade - with no end in sight! Most of us can’t run state and tribal governments. But if we could, here’s what I’d do:

As a state leader, I’d move on both the 1837 fishing thing and the expanded-reservation question. On 1837, I’d ask the Legislature to formally request President Bush to sign an executive order ending the Chippewa fishing, hunting, and gathering provision in Article V of the 1837 treaty. Such presidential action was authorized by the treaty and envisioned by the 1999 U. S. Supreme Court’s Mille Lacs opinion.

Yes, they’d cry foul and repeat nonsense about treaty provisions being “forever.” But I’d explain how the 1837 treaty was mainly a land deal enabling Uncle Sam to acquire what’s now east-central Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. Article V allowed the Indians the privilege to continue harvesting on lands they ceded, but only “at the pleasure of the President.” (Similar treaties said “until needed for settlement.”) Sure, President Taylor’s 1850 extinguishing order was narrowly found to be flawed. But a new order could be carefully crafted! Another option is congressional action.

Risking political crucifixion, I’d take this extraordinary step because the costs are intolerable. The process demands too much time and contortion from state fisheries managers, mires our fragile lake economy in endless debacle, celebrates differences instead of togetherness, and pays more homage to fish quotas and penalty threats than to building the ideal climate for fishing and living.

Yes, state and tribal representatives “negotiated” the court-approved protocols governing sport and tribal fish harvests and management. They spent thousands of hours and big bucks to dig the hole. Now it’s time to reverse course. Sure, DNR’s new five-year fisheries plan offers more wiggle room and better spin, but such tweaking doesn’t kill the albatross. Managing Mille Lacs by a political committee is a non-starter, but at least Rep. Bill Haas recognizes that “this thing will keep coming back to bite us.” Also, I’d oppose taxpayer funding for tribal fishing and the tribal management bureaucracy.

Regarding the effort to reestablish a 61,000-acre Indian reservation, I’d end state silence and detail all areas where state/citizen interests could be impacted by “Indian country” status.

As a tribal leader, I’d call for a rare democratic review of tribal government’s power quest via 1837 harvest rights and “getting back” the 1855 reservation. It costs millions, means little to most band members, and grows the notion that “tribal” means “trouble.” There never was a “160-year struggle” for 1837 fishing rights. And that old 1855 reservation hasn’t been our “homeland” rez for many decades. And must we conduct the only spawning-time walleye net fishery in the U. S.?

Separatist agendas build walls, not bridges. Just ten years ago, our former tribal government and its allies wanted to partition the lake into tribal and non-tribal “zones.” Hey, we can’t talk “equal rights” and knock Trent Lott while acting like 21st-century segregationists!

Yes, tribal public relations specialists, attorneys, and politicos successfully exploit white guilt, race, “culture,” legal loopholes, and good will. But their victories have brought distrust, division, and controversy - plus seven other bands without historic ties here.

Maybe it’s time to scrap tribal government’s political-legal fights and struggles. Years ago, our leader Sam Yankee told Aitkin County friends that reservations should be dissolved! In June, 1997, elder Herman Kegg told Leif Enger and Minnesota Public Radio that, given the chance, he and others would have voted against launching the 1837 lawsuit! So these things are at least debatable, not “sacred.” Through our gaming compacts, Minnesota helped us acquire a huge economic engine. And public dollars continue flowing our way. Instead of looking backward to 1837 and 1855, we could focus on moving every child ahead! We could dismantle barriers, regain lost time, and forge profitable new relationships with folks around the lake who optimistically gave us their patronage and best wishes when our casinos opened.

So much for fantasy leadership!

Editor’s note: The preceding article by Joe Fellegy first appeared in the Feb.6, 2003 issue of the Mille Lacs Messenger.