By Joe Fellegy (from Outdoor News, April 14, 2010)

I’ve strongly opposed the only spawning-time walleye gill-net fishery in the United States, without feeling guilty.

Ponder the high-impact Mille Lacs monster: enormous walleye totals, plus tons of unwanted and wasted pike; a giant cultural affront to most Minnesotans, who embrace closed seasons during spawning; gross misrepresentation of Ojibwe culture and history for political purposes; taxpayer millions for tribal, federal, and state management bureaucracies; disproportionately high tribal fish allocations; a tradition of go-with-the-flow acquiescence among state officials, who lost an air-tight case and helped shape the present intolerable system.

Consider, too, the hands-off approaches by journalists, politicians, and the conservation community. And there’s the modern separate-and-unequal race politics—central to the new tribal “sovereignty”—that celebrates differences instead of commonalities.

Almost 20 years ago, the Mille Lacs Band government launched its unnecessary 1837 Treaty case against a generous state that signed compacts for two Mille Lacs Band casinos. Had one polled Band members in 1990 about a spawning-time gill-net fishery, it’s likely 90-plus percent would have said no. Unfortunately, the Indian Industry, not the Indian people, ran the show.

In the early 1990s, I attended parties hosted by the late Ron Maddox, St. Paul bar owner, tribal lobbyist, and DFL activist who helped transfer Mille Lacs Band government to the modern Indian Industry’s network of consultants, lawyers, lobbyists, p. r. firms, and advocacy groups. Band leader Marge Anderson told us that Mille Lacs Band members generally weren’t interested in exercising 1837 fishing rights. Similarly, Don Wedll, the longtime non-Indian mind and voice of the Mille Lacs Band, assured the Minnesota Sportfishing Congress (MSC) there’d be no Wisconsin-style treaty fracas, since the Mille Lacs Band needed only several dozen walleyes annually for ceremonies. (Then why the lawsuit?)

Historically, no Mille Lacs leader made 1837 fishing a cause. After all, in the 1855 Treaty the Band relinquished “all rights, title, and interest of whatsoever nature” in the 1837 Treaty area. In the 1990s, as anglers increasingly worried about gill nets, tribal elder Betty Kegg asked me to explain the fuss over nets and fish. She told me, “Most Indians here don’t care about fishing!”

That ‘settlement’

No historic rights cause? Indians uninterested in fishing? True. But the new sovereignty had other aims, here and across the country: expand jurisdiction for tribal governments—management authority, political power, and money. Following treaty-rights hassles in Wisconsin, Mille Lacs Band policymakers played on Minnesota fears. They coaxed state personnel, especially from the Sando DNR and the Humphrey Attorney General’s Office, into secret negotiations towards a “settlement” to be okayed by the Legislature and by a federal court.

Key components of the failed settlement effort:

A. Race-based partitioning of Mille Lacs Lake with a Mille Lacs Band “tribal exclusive zone” off the west shore—reminiscent of segregated facilities in the old south. (Had the other seven 1837 Chippewa bands gained similar zones, the total would have covered half the lake.)

B. $8 to $10 million for Mille Lacs Band government.

C. 7,500 to 15,000 acres of Minnesota public land (not detailed for the public).

D. Redefinition of Mille Lacs Indian Reservation—15 times larger than the one on your highway map.

Related points. . .

• Most Chippewa netters from the eight 1837 bands, including six from Wisconsin, have no cultural or historic ties to Mille Lacs fishing.

• No court required gill nets in Mille Lacs. Decisions about harvesting methods, fish allocations, seasons, etc. result from political decisions by management. No court exempted tribal managers from the same every-day scrutiny and politics that visit state DNRs and their decision-making. (Your DNR and lawmakers could okay gill nets, seines, dynamite, 20 lines, and limitless bass-keeping for all state- licensed anglers. But conservation ethics, values, and good politics intervene.)

• Federal tax dollars fund tribal governments, tribal DNRs, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). (Focus on this Indian Industry, not “the Indians.”) Minnesotans fund their state’s big role in “treaty fisheries management.”

• Courts never officially divvied up the Mille Lacs fish pie. No final allocation. Nevertheless, citing other cases and “precedent,” state lawyers and officials—at what conference table?—surrendered to 50-50 splits for northern pike and perch. Did they open the door to future Indian Industry claims to 50 percent of the annual “safe harvest level” of Mille Lacs walleyes?

• Somewhere in the legal papers, Minnesota officials have ultimate authority to intervene on conservation grounds. Sacrificial pike alone—for years discarded dead and alive, on the lake, in ditches, and in dumpsters—should justify flexing Minnesota’s legal and political muscle.

Despite the state’s losing case, the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling provided an out, affirming that the 1837 Chippewa harvest privilege is precarious and temporary—“at the pleasure of the President.” Somehow, on this front and on the conservation opening, we’ve seen no state effort to end the annual madness. END

See also…
Gillnetted-fish gut piles draw attention to bigger issues
Key 1855 Treaty fact dodged