By Joe Fellegy Outdoor News June 10, 2011

On May 20, two prominent Minnesota outdoor writers devoted same-day columns to “treaty rights” issues–a worthy topic, given the geography, huge dollar and social costs (past, present, and future), and challenges to Minnesota’s management authority over Minnesota resources and their use.

Star Tribune outdoors writer Dennis Anderson cited the May 13 pre-opener illegal fish-in at Cedar Lake in Minneapolis by Chris Mato Nunpa and other Dakota (Sioux) activists, who claim 1805 treaty fishing-hunting rights in today’s Twin Cities area. And Anderson referenced last spring’s pre-opener fish-in with gill nets, also in violation of state law, at Lake Bemidji by Leech Lake and White Earth Band activists claiming harvest and co-management rights in the vast 1855 ceded territory stretching from Mille Lacs to the Canadian border at one point, with a westward finger reaching the North Dakota border.

It’s unclear if any Dakota tribal governments back Mato Nunpa and his group, or would finance major litigation. Leech Lake and White Earth governments seem likely to pursue separate tribal harvests and management authority in the 1855 ceded territory.

Outdoor News Editor Rob Drieslein’s May 20 column recounted his visit to the May 13 Cedar Lake event that challenged state jurisdiction over certain Indians in metroland.

Rob mentioned Dakota activists’ plans for a tribal hunt at Fort Snelling State Park this fall, also in defiance of state law. Dennis Anderson cited the perennial Mille Lacs spawning-time gill net fishery and the “convoluted co-management” there. He suggested–maybe tongue in cheek, given the 1990s Mille Lacs court debacles–that with so much treaty stuff in the air, perhaps all sides should pass the collection box and “lawyer up” big-time.

Lawyer-up? Given state government’s weak record on tribal-related affairs–an official reluctance to defend state and citizen interests–it’s probably naive to trust the offices of Attorney General, DNR Commissioner, and others, to move beyond complacency, silence, and apparent satisfaction with the status-quo (including the perennial Mille Lacs meat-grinder). Also, Minnesota is a state, with citizen-taxpayer-license buyers already spending millions for state leaders and state agencies (including AG, DNR, and plenty of lawyers) to muscle up on the state’s behalf.

But they don’t muscle-up politically, let alone legally when the topic is tribal.

Owing readers

Since I revisit the “treaty rights” topic more than other writers, I’m sometimes asked why. Well, call it a strong interest. As a school-age youngster I read much about “Indians,” not just the plains and woodlands cultures of Minnesota and neighboring states and provinces, but from the Modocs and Kwakiutls near the Pacific to the Seminoles in Florida, to the Apaches, Comanches, and Kiowas in the southwest. Mention chiefs like Captain Jack, Pontiac, Red Cloud, Cochise, or Black Kettle, and I could babble on. Later, I researched and wrote a number of papers dealing with American Indians for college history, anthropology, and political science classes. Ditto for graduate-level history classes, including Minnesota history.

In the early 1970s, I got into Mille Lacs history topics, from the pine-logging era and steamboats to town histories, fishing, resorts, and much more, including Mille Lacs Chippewa history. Before that hobby took off, I already appreciated the working relationships and friendships that developed among Indians and non-Indians, especially in the resort and business communities. Sure, there were “attitudes” and ignorant stereotypes out there, but also lots to be admired. One might argue that those old good-neighbor times were better than what federal Indian policy has begotten in recent years with the new government-centered tribal “sovereignty,” which celebrates differences and separate nationhood.

Nowadays one must distinguish between the Indian people and the modern Indian Industry–powerful taxpayer-funded tribal governments and their consultants, lawyers, lobbyists, public-relations firms, corporate types, and influential friends and insulators in journalism, politics, and academics. The new and largely unaccountable Indian Industry’s themes have been fight and sue, en route to ever-more authority and jurisdiction. Indian people are often out-of-the-loop fronts for it all.

When Mille Lacs Band government sued Minnesota over1837 Treaty fishing-hunting gathering rights in 1990, I took notice. Few locals ever anticipated Mille Lacs Indians doing such a thing. Minnesota had recently signed gaming compacts with the Band, and Grand Casinos were getting underway midst plenty of well-wishing. Moreover, there had been no Mille Lacs Band cause, let alone a struggle, for “treaty rights” harvests. Anyway, I followed it all: the early 1990s unsettling “settlement” effort at the Legislature, and the legal process (including the use and misuse of history) from federal district court in Minneapolis to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Yes, I spent many hours in court rooms and read expert-witness reports.)

Given my ties to sport fishing, and being familiar with a century-plus of state fisheries management at Mille Lacs, I naturally watched the Mille Lacs case’s Phase II, dealing with resource allocation–who can harvest what, where, and how; and the protocols and guidelines for taxpayer-funded state and tribal management bureaucracies.

The costs, on many fronts, have been intolerably high. State policymakers helped dig (and continue to maintain) the Mille Lacs hole–unjustified spawning-time gill nets and all. Will state officials push and defend state interests there, and elsewhere, down the road?