Behind Midwest Tribal Spearfishing Lies a Violent History of Denied Treaty Rights

How tribes are fighting to maintain traditions in the face of new threats.

Mark Duffy, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, stands on a picnic table while showing kids how to spearfish at a family and youth spearfishing event on Namekagon Lake.
Mark Duffy, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, stands on a picnic table while showing kids how to spearfish at a family and youth spearfishing event on Namekagon Lake.
AP Photo/John Locher

HAYWARD, Wisc. (AP) β€” On a twilight so calm the red and white pines are reflected in the waters of northern Wisconsin's Chippewa Flowage, John Baker plans to go spearfishing β€” a traditional Ojibwe method of harvesting walleye. But before he sets out, he detours his boat to land on a sandy shore, hops out and crosses the tree line, crunching through dead leaves. "This is my sanctuary," he says, recalling childhood visits in his dad's rowboat.

He points out divots in the earth β€” former graves, once behind a church, whose occupants have since been moved. But the burial sites of many Native people in the area were not. When a local power company created the Flowage by building the Winter Dam in the 1920s, it flooded and displaced the ancestral homelands of many Ojibwe.

"There were bodies floating out of the Flowage for years afterward," said Patty Loew, a retired journalism professor who has written several books on the history of tribes and is a citizen of the Mashkiiziibii, also known as the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.

Baker says that his grandmother has an old map with the names and home locations of many people who once lived there, and that she always told him to protect this place. "That's what we are. We're protectors of the land," he said.

It's just one example of a fraught and violent history that for centuries disrupted Indigenous people's lives in the Upper Midwest and barred them from traditional food gathering practices like spearfishing, hunting and harvesting wild rice. Now Ojibwe and other Indigenous people are fighting to keep the way of life vibrant β€” all the more important given that history β€” in the face of new threats like climate change and lakeshore development.

"I look at it as we're on a path of reconciling things. And we're gonna continue that path," said Brian Bisonette, conservation director of the Lac Courte Oreilles Conservation Department. "I'm honoring my ancestors by taking up these fights, because they didn't have a voice."

When the newly formed United States government's Confederation Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, it promised that "the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed." Area tribes, under intense pressure as U.S. "progress was mowing everything in its path," as Loew put it, signed treaties in 1837, 1842, and 1854, ceding land to the United States government but retaining the right to hunt, gather and fish in those territories.

But the U.S. quickly broke those promises. The Wisconsin state government, in the course of creating their own laws over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries while largely ignorant of federal treaties, imposed regulations on tribal members, often issuing them citations, confiscating equipment or even taking them to court if they hunted or fished without state licenses.

"In the 20s and 30s, this is a real hardship, because the Ojibwe are still living on a subsistence basis," said Loew, who also worked as a journalist covering treaty rights and tribal spearfishing for many years. "Those were really, really dark days for our tribal members."

John Johnson, tribal president of the Lac du Flambeau band of Ojibwe, described stories on the reservation about how game wardens would burn game right in front of the people who had caught them. He said that some families would hide their food in the woods just so they would survive the winter.

By the 1960s, a few Ojibwe individuals started resurfacing treaty documents of the past, and multiple tribal members purposely got arrested for spearfishing so the cases would go to court. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled to reaffirm Ojibwe treaty rights on and off reservation land.

But then angry and misinformed locals started showing up to picket at lakes and harass tribal members. They slashed tires, shouted racist slurs and shot at spearfishers.

"A lot of us understood that this reaction to fish, that this wasn't just about fish," said Loew, who was one of the few Indigenous media professionals covering the story and whose family members were among those risking their safety to spearfish. "This was about that racial tension finally bubbling to the surface."

In the process of affirming treaty rights, the state also had to collect more ecological knowledge than it had in the past to set safe catch limits and balance the resources among spearfishers and anglers. Loew said a former Department of Natural Resources official told her that "Indian treaty rights are one of the best thing that ever happened to the state, because it learned so much about the natural world."

Loew thinks that idea extends to all Indigenous people, whose diverse cultures share a unifying environmental ethic and sense of stewardship. Returning to the treaties written in history, Loew said, helped renew conversations about what Indigenous ancestors intended, adhering to a philosophy of making decisions with seven generations ahead in mind.

That's one of the reasons remembering history is so important, Loew said β€” because solutions to current environmental problems can be found in the wisdom of the past, in history and embedded in the ecological and spiritual knowledge that has been passed down to many Indigenous people today.

As Johnson put it, settlers "put a price tag on the fish, you put a price tag on the deer, the bear, the wolves, everything that we need in our culture, in our society," without the humility needed to consider how to make those resources last.

"And we're slowly losing it because of that price tag," he added. "Us Native Americans don't have a price tag. We have a reason to protect them."

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