By Clare Fitz — CERA Report Member Update — December 2019

The economy of and surrounding Mille Lacs Lake, located 100 miles north of Minneapolis-St Paul, whose economy for many many years has been based on Walleye fishing and the tourism built around it, once known as the Walleye Capitol of the World, is being destroyed. Why?

Perhaps a little history is in order because I continue to believe that what we face at Mille Lacs is basically a land grab and with the land goes jurisdiction and power. And while on the surface it appears that the Indian tribes are the culprit, we have been able to prove through archival research that the culprit is actually the federal government and that what we often blame on the Indians and sometimes the states is basically a fraudulent federal government scheme to assume more power over us all using the Indians as a vehicle.

We should pay attention to the January 14, 1989 State of the Band speech delivered by Art Gahbow, then Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band. Why? Because that is exactly what is happening. In that speech, he stated, “As of right now we are on the offensive. We are on the attack. To state it simply, we will take it back… The goal is to get back the original Mille Lacs, Sandy Lake, and Rice Lake Reservations. The Lake Lena area will also be expanded… One way or the other, we will take it back… The State of Minnesota does not understand that we are a sovereign government… Commissioner of Natural Resources Don Wedll, I want to have our 1837 treaty litigation underway within the next six months… All work hours, all business transactions, all contract negotiations will be aimed at one goal: Restoration of the Reservation lands… We will not back down. We are on the attack. There is no surrender.” (Emphasis added).

Should we be surprised then at what is happening at Mille Lacs? Should we be surprised that the city of Onamia has become basically a tribal village? Should we be surprised that the Mille Lacs Band has purchased all except two storefronts on one side of the main street of the city of Wahkon and that they are now all vacant? Of the two remaining businesses on that side of the street, one is closed as a result of not having enough business to survive. Most of the tourists are going to other lakes. So only one business is still occupied and operating on the two-block area of that side of Main Street. And should we be surprised that the Mille Lacs Band has recently applied to have a nearly 40-acre parcel in the city of Isle placed into federal trust, thereby potentially depriving the city, the county and the schools of sorely needed tax resources? And should we be surprised that the Mille Lacs Band has purchased the bait and tackle shop at the corner of Highways 169 and 27 that had been in existence for many many years and is essentially the gateway to Mille Lacs for those traveling from the south, and it now stands vacant? And should we be surprised that the Mille Lacs Band has sued Mille Lacs County, the Mille Lacs County Sheriff and the Mille Lacs County Attorney with the basic aim of restoring to reservation status the long since disestablished former Mille Lacs Reservation and by doing so is forcing Mille Lacs County to spend massive amounts of sorely needed taxpayer dollars in defense? And should we be surprised that the Mille Lacs Band and the State of Minnesota through the Department of Public Safety are pursuing a joint powers agreement that would expand the authority of tribal police officers beyond that authorized by the cooperative agreement with Mille Lacs County as prescribed by State law? And should we be surprised that the agreement was negotiated without notifying Mille Lacs County until late in the process reminiscent of the Band’s agreement with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) back in 1993? And on and on and on.

But how did we get here? On August 13, 1990, the Mille Lacs Band sued the State of Minnesota asserting that the 1837 treaty with the United States gave them the right to hunt, fish and gather on land ceded in that treaty.

On January 15, 1993, the Minnesota DNR and the Mille Lacs Band signed a settlement agreement. In that agreement, they agreed that the Band would drop their lawsuit, that the Band would limit their walleye harvest to 240,000 pounds and would adhere to their own conservation code, that Mille Lacs Lake would be divided into a tribal zone and a non-tribal zone and that the former 61,000-acre Mille Lacs Reservation would be recognized as still existing in addition to land and money being given to the Band by the State of Minnesota. Later that same year this agreement was narrowly defeated in the Minnesota legislature.

So, the Band’s case continued in court. On August 24, 1994, Judge Murphy ruled that the Band retained the hunting, fishing and gathering rights they claimed and a second phase was ordered to determine allotments and to determine the extent of State regulation. In January 1997, Judge Davis ruled that the Band’s conservation code would rule, not the State of Minnesota’s code. The case was appealed and ended at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on March 24, 1999, in a 5 to 4 decision in favor of the Indians.

That is the end of my capsulized history lesson except to say that at least to me it is very clear that we should pay attention to history and the signals that are given us because that is exactly what is happening. As the tourism industry is being destroyed at Lake Mille Lacs, and it is, it becomes easier and easier for Art Gahbow’s plan to become reality, and always with the backing and direction of the federal government.

But why does it matter that people like me who have long-standing homes in an area that threatens to be claimed by the federal government and made into an illegal Indian reservation? And here I want to remind us of a statement made about the time this effort on the part of the Mille Lacs Band started, by Judge Randall in the Minnesota Court of Appeals case, Granite Valley Hotel v. Jackpot Junction. Judge Randall said in describing the legal deficiencies that apply on many Minnesota Indian reservations,

…“There is no guarantee that the Minnesota Constitution, the United States Constitution and its precious Bill of Rights will control.
…There are no guarantees that Civil Rights Acts, federal or state legislation against age discrimination; gender discrimination, etc.
…will be honored. There are no guarantees of the Veteran’s Preference Act, no civil service classification to protect tribal government
…employees, no guarantees of OSHA, no guarantees of the Americans Disabilities Act (1990), no guarantees of the right to unionize, no
…right to Minnesota’s teacher tenure laws, no right of federal and state “whistleblower” statutes, no guarantee against blatant nepotism,
…no guarantees of a fair and orderly process concerning access to reservation housing, and no freedom of press and no freedom of speech.
…In other words, all the basic human rights we take for granted, that allow us to live in dignity with our neighbors, are not guaranteed
…on Indian reservations under the present version of sovereignty… The recent flow of Minnesota cases, trial, and appellate, have nothing
…to do with cultural preservation. They have to do only with money and a tribal government’s continued insistence on the right to be
…unaccountable to anyone, Indian or non-Indian, in any state court, unless they choose to go to state court. Otherwise, they try to
…force parties into their own tribal courts.”

And why does it matter that I am forced to either break the law or go to some other lake in order to furnish my grandchildren with a meal of Walleye that I have caught? Why am I being denied that experience that for so many years has been considered the cultural heritage of Minnesotans? Somewhere there has to be an answer to the abuse of my civil rights as a Minnesotan.

Learn more at Mille Lacs Equal Rights Foundation