Who owns Red Lake?
DNR appears reluctant to look at research
A second state level meeting following a Red Lake boat seizure was held in the Governor’s office August 7. PERM members and others brought their concerns directly to the Governor’s attention. He was not in attendance, but was represented by Laura Bordelon, an able and attentive staff person.
In attendance, among others, were Sen. Betsy Wergin, Rep. Sondra Erickson, and former Rep. Douglas Lindgren. Also attending were PERM representatives Marv Carlson and Jim Wille, as well as Jerry Mueller, whose boat was seized, and Shawn Fuhrer, nephew of Jerry Fuhrer, whose plane was seized in 2002. DNR Conservation Officer Greg Spaulding and Neil Illis, researchers on the legal basis for exclusive rights claimed by the Red Lake tribe, also attended.
Carlson presented PERM President Doug Meyenburg’s letter to the Governor, with copies for Attorney General Mike Hatch and Commissioner Gene Merriam.
In short, attendees asked that the State provide proof Attorney and Solicitor Generals’ 1931 and 1936 opinions were a sufficient basis for tribal exclusive rights on Red Lake. If legal, then the State should mark the boundary. Minnesota citizens should not have to be at risk as they are in the current situation.
Rep. Erickson brought up the point that, considering the time and extensive costs of Red Lake’s restoration, why had no one taken responsibility for clearly setting the boundaries?
Attendees believed that an agency other than DNR must look into the matter of tribal ownership of Red Lake. The DNR has consistently said, “we have been operating this way for 75 years.” In fact, the DNR actually made a commercial fish processing plant for Red Lake in 1929 to stimulate the economy of northern Minnesota after WW I. At the time, they were also managing fishing licenses for all of Red Lake.
In the years following, non-tribal angler traffic to Red Lake dried up. This led to the tribe asserting itself ever more aggressively regarding the use of the lake’s resources.
A bigger question seemed to be why doesn’t the DNR want to look at any of Spaulding’s research? It was pointed out that the economic value of Red Lake is highly significant. The power to shape policy and garner votes as a result is equally significant.
Bordelon did say she would ask DNR to dig up the legal documents that they use to support their current policies and send them to Neil Illis.
Attendees regrouped for a second meeting after leaving the Governor’s office. Much of the discussion revolved around Mueller’s rights as a non-tribal citizen. The pilot’s experience provided little guidance, as he appeared in tribal court without representation and worked only to get his plane back. Nor did it appear that privately paid legal assistance would be forthcoming, as most attorneys do not want to take on legal wrangling with the tribe.
Concern was raised about whether or not Mueller should show up at tribal court, given that he was unlikely to obtain representation, and that no one could see any legal basis for a non-tribal member being tried in tribal court.
Spaulding cautioned that Mueller’s failure to show could preclude any action being taken in Federal court. He said that if this case went to Federal court, it would be dismissed. Federal law states that a person must “knowingly and willingly” trespass on tribal land. This was not the case in Mueller or the pilot’s situations.
In addition to the apparent lack of legal basis for tribal action, it was again pointed out that the extensive support of Minnesota taxpayers in the lake’s restoration should have guaranteed more equal protection of the law. It was clearly felt that the State has to assert itself.
Discussion continued on examples of the amount of Federal and State welfare and school funds that flow to the tribe, without the same level of accountability called for outside the reservation.
Leadership is needed to overcome the reluctance to deal with these difficult issues. Attendees generally agreed that the State must ask for a declaratory judgment. And they must overcome wanting to lose in return for votes. Greg Spaulding said, “If they [PERM] take it on, they will win hands down.”
Bordello’s willingness to contact the DNR was considered a positive note for moving in this direction.
It was generally understood that the best strategy for now would be for Mueller to go to tribal court, ask then to go to Federal court, exhaust the tribal appeal process, and possibly become a candidate for a hearing in Federal court.