Treaty fishing rights contested in Minnesota

The tribal governments of the Leech Lake and White Earth bands of Ojibwe in Minnesota recently held an informational meeting about their treaty fishing rights.

They are making the case that they have a right to fish, hunt and gather, according to their own rulev on a 13-million acre swath of northern Minnesota that lies outside reservation boundaries.

The forum was strictly informational but, a mile or so down the Lake Bemidji waterfront, a handful of Leech Lake citizens took more direct action, setting a pair of 200-foot long gill nets in the lake. If charged with breaking state law, those band members said, they vowed to fight the case in court.

The current push for recognition of Ojibwe treaty rights recalls the contentious Mille Lacs dispute of the 1990s and the even more acrimonious, racially charged battle in Wisconsin of the 1980s. And sometime in the not-too-distant future, it is likely to present the Minnesota Legislature and state agencies with a hard and expensive choice: negotiate or fight.

Frank Bibeau, Leech Lake tribal attorney and a White Earth band citizen, has been one of the key figures involved in the push to reassert treaty rights. Bibeau said the bands want to negotiate with the state, government to government.

“We’re not looking to battle. We’re as civil as we can be,” said Bibeau. “We want dialogue and diplomacy.” Like the state government, Bibeau said, the bands are financially stressed and don’t have much appetite for a costly court battle.

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