Red Lake tribal boat snatching brought to attention of DNR


Rep. Sondra Erickson, Sen. Betsy Wergin, and citizen group push for action plan


  A Red Lake boat seizure in May led to a meeting with DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam on July 11. Rep. Sondra Erickson and Sen. Betsy Wergin called for the meeting to generate an action plan regarding boat seizures by Red Lake tribal authorities.


  On May 28 Jerry Mueller and his son-in-law were stopped by tribal authorities and told that they were fishing in tribal waters. The boat and all equipment were seized and they were given a receipt.


  Four weeks later Mueller was summoned to Red Lake tribal court to answer charges on four counts on trespass and fishing violations. Each count could result in a $500 fine “and/or loss of the boat and equipment.”


  Rep. Erickson pointed out that the State constitution ensures the right to hunt and fish in Minnesota. Participants also asked how the State could allow a non-tribal citizen to be tried in a tribal court. There is no legal basis for such action. Mueller’s state-issued fishing and boat licenses should obligate the State to protect him.


  Rep. Erickson asked why the DNR, in the years of work with the tribe to restore Red Lake, had never addressed the potential problems created by the invisible boundary dividing “tribal” and public portions of Red Lake. She faulted the DNR for not being pro-active and referenced her legislative proposal for marking the boundary, which she did not introduce on the advice of the DNR.


  PERM has been raising this issue since last Fall. PERM distributed flyers outlining the Red Lake Angling Hazard. Doug Meyenburg, President of PERM, also wrote to DNR Commissioner Merriam and other requesting assistance in creating a boundary marking system. The DNR’s response was that markings were not needed, boat snatchings were rare, anglers should be using GPS technology, and such a system would be too expensive.


  Looking for a legal basis


Another well-publicized Red Lake seizure incident occurred in 2002 when a pilot, who had landed on the ice to fish, had his plane seized. The pilot was “tried” in tribal court without representation and fined $4,000. The tribe then forced him to haul his plane out over land


  It was this seizure led DNR Conservation Officer Greg Spaulding to investigate the legal basis for the tribe’s action. He could not find any legal basis for such action. Spaulding’s research centers on a 1926 Supreme Court ruling, which states that Red Lake is property of the State of Minnesota, which is responsible for management of the lake.


  When this contradiction to tribal rights claims was pointed out, the DNR’s response was that the tribe’s authority came from State Attorney and Solicitor General’s opinions requested by the DNR in 1931 and 1936. However, many believed these opinions clearly contradicted the language of the 1926 decision.


  It would be helpful to know what situation(s) led to the DNR’s requests for opinions. It might also be helpful to explore any link between these requests and a failed national experiment to demonstrate the superiority of communism over capitalism that was foisted upon Indian reservations at that time. If links exist, the Attorney General’s opinions could have simply provided cover for moving that experiment forward. (See A Legacy from the Thirties, page 6.)


  The DNR was asked to request a new opinion from the Attorney General regarding the accuracy of tribal exclusive rights claims . Commissioner Merriam said that it was possible, but that he would be surprised if such an opinion would change the status quo in any way. He also pointed out that the legislature also was in a position to call for such an opinion.


  Requests for assistance from the US Attorney’s office by Mueller and Neil Illis, a research colleague of Greg Spaulding, were rebuffed. An invitation to review the legal research was also turned down.


  Participants recognized that a focus on marking the boundary could detract from efforts to resolve the underlying question about the legal basis exclusive rights. Commissioner Merriam said “we don’t want to concede the argument for eliminating exclusive tribal rights on Red Lake” in the process.


Action Plan


  As a result of these discussions, the DNR agreed to consider the following steps:

* Look into statutes and case law researched to date

* Look into creating a marker buoy system

* Seek legal counsel from the Attorney General

* Get a list of any other decisions, which the DNR believes supports its current policies

Meyenburg said PERM intends to protect private landowners and will pursue resolution of the basis for exclusive tribal rights on Red Lake.