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"Their own system of the world"

Ojibwe culture revitalized through contested fish harvest

January 5, 2015

Editor’s note: Conflict over natural resources in northern Wisconsin played out in federal courts and in heated confrontations at boat landings through the 1970s and 80s. At issue were Native American rights to hunt and fish on off-reservation lands ceded to the U.S. government in mid-19th century treaties – rights that had not been exercised until Ojibwe spearfishers began to harvest walleyed pike from lakes more than a century later. Their actions, and the reactions of state regulators and non-Native citizens, set off a chain of lakeside protests, court battles and national news reports. The conflict also ignited an internal struggle over identity and culture within the Ojibwe community. 

What follows is an excerpt from The Walleye War: The Struggle for Ojibwe Spearfishing and Treaty Rights, a book by UW-Madison anthropologist Larry Nesper

The Walleye War by Larry Nesper

On October 25, 1989, the adult membership of the Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians voted down tribal council Resolution 369, a proposition that would have leased federally guaranteed treaty rights for off-reservation hunting, fishing, and gathering to the state of Wisconsin for a ten-year period, pending state and federal approval. The community, numbering some twenty-four hundred, would have received a package of social and economic programs, employment opportunities, and per capita cash payments collectively valued at fifty million dollars.

The vote came toward the end of an intense six-year period of conflict between the Flambeau band, its neighboring non-Indian communities, and the state. It was the culmination of a series of events and interactions between the six Wisconsin Chippewa bands that both re-organized their cultural identities and reconfigured the relationships among them, the latter through the emergence of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), a consortium of eleven tribal governments from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

In 1983, after nine years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals had upheld the Wisconsin bands’ rights to hunt, fish, and gather on the lands and lakes of the northern third of the state – the area ceded in the treaties of 1837 and 1842. The court decision upheld the Indian right to use traditional methods to harvest fish. No one had been permitted to spear game fish in Wisconsin for over a century before that decision. The conflict focused on the Lac du Flambeau band’s harvesting of spawning walleyed pike, a species of game fish that the state had been cultivating in the northern lakes for over a century.

Many non-Indians in the politically conservative north-central area of Wisconsin saw themselves as dependent on tourism and feared that spearfishing would destroy the economy over time. They were concerned that Ojibwe spearfishing would deplete the fish population and leave little for tourists. Non-Indian groups such as Equal Rights for Everyone, Protect America’s Rights and Resources (PARR), and Stop Treaty Abuse/Wisconsin (STA/W) emerged and became allied with national anti-Indian organizations in order to oppose the local Indian exercise of treaty rights. Basing their opposition on the principle that such rights represented a violation of equal justice under the law – as similar groups had done in the Northwest and Michigan – hundreds of non-Indians protested at the lakes where Indian people spearfished. Between 1985 and 1991, hundreds of protesters were arrested for acts of civil disobedience. The state spent millions of dollars on law enforcement, and the social fabric of northern Wisconsin became torn along racial lines through numerous acts of overt hostility and violence between tribal members and non-Indians.

"Tribal members helped
revive the community’s
memory of a relationship
with the federal government
that had been ratified a century
and a half earlier and evoked
culturally specific and long-
contested subsistence practices
such as spearfishing."

Some Anishinaabe people at the Lac du Flambeau reservation attempted to mold this conflict into a political and social movement, drawing on the local cultural capital they had inherited as well as their relationships with other Indians in the region and beyond. Tribal members helped revive the community’s memory of a relationship with the federal government that had been ratified a century and a half earlier and evoked culturally specific and long-contested subsistence practices such as spearfishing and “violating” (hunting out of the state’s season). Cultural practices that had retreated to the relative privacy of extended family gatherings over the course of the century became realized once again at the community level. Large feasts and ceremonies bolstered and hardened the resolve of those who were taking the risk of reimagining Lac du Flambeau. Prophecy reemerged and played a key role in this unfolding drama.

In an attempt to buy out the Lac du Flambeau band, the state offered its members effectively the equivalent of over three hundred dollars per fish speared. The offer was meant to quell the social unrest brought about by the bands’ spearing of two percent of the annual 670,000 walleyed pike taken from the lakes by sportfishers in the ceded territories. The value of the exercise of these rights in monetary terms would have been more than compensated by the proposed per capita payments alone. More interesting still, only a small proportion of tribal members – no more than 15 percent – ever fished off the reservation; half of those fished for only one or two nights, taking a few dozen walleyed pike. An even smaller number of tribal members went off the reservation to gather wild rice in the late summer or hunt deer over a three-month season in the fall.

Treaty rights supporters link arms to protect tribal drummers during a spearfishing protest at a northern Wisconsin boat landing in the late 1980s. Behind them are anti-spearing protesters clad in blaze orange
Treaty rights supporters link arms to protect tribal drummers during a spearfishing protest at a northern Wisconsin boat landing in the late 1980s. Behind them are anti-spearing protesters clad in blaze orange. Photo credit Wisconsin State Journal. 

Juxtaposing the limited exercise of treaty rights with what the state was willing to pay to lease their forbearance, Flambeau’s vote to turn the offer down is counterintuitive and begs explanation in cultural and historical terms. The off-reservation exercise of rights and everything it would come to mean point to a distinct and dynamic order of value, system of meaning, and cultural complex at Lac du Flambeau. These values, meanings, and practices are in many ways profoundly different from the ones assumed to have been adopted by these Indian people over the last century.

How did a sense of distinctness remain viable enough, despite all of the changes experienced by the Lac du Flambeau community since the fur trade and treaty period, to motivate sustained practical and political actions of such consequence? How does an indigenous system of meaning endure and transform even as the individuals who transmit it revalue and appropriate practices that originate in the dominant society? How are the complex historical and cultural processes in such a context of domination related? These questions impel this study as I describe and interpret a culturally organized political and social movement at Lac du Flambeau in the late twentieth century that centered primarily on a dispute within and without the community over spearfishing walleyed pike.

The history and value of the use of off-reservation resources before and since the court decision of 1983, the formation and emergence of a militant faction that aggressively hunted and spearfished, and the events, images, and arguments that were engineered, evoked, and assembled when contesting the agenda of the Lac du Flambeau tribal council, clearly indicate that Lac du Flambeau remains a separate and culturally distinct community. It is in this sense that Lac du Flambeau is an emergent center in “their own system of the world.” Though colonized and transformed, this society is largely organized by an order of value that is both continuous with and a transformation of Ojibwe culture in other locations throughout the upper Great Lakes over the course of the last 350 years. Yet Lac du Flambeau undeniably has been integrated into the global economy and culture for 250 years. Indeed, its genesis lay in the interaction of global forces. Nonetheless, it has continued to grow and transform as a social and cultural entity whose members share an image of it as separate.

Reproduced from The Walleye War: The Struggle For Ojibwe Spearfishing and Treaty Rights by Larry Nesper by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2002 by the University of Nebraska Press.

Seventh Generation Earth Ethics

Seventh Generation Earth Ethics by Patty Loew

A book by Patty Loew
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2014

Wisconsin’s rich tradition of sustainability rightfully includes its First Americans, who along with Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Gaylord Nelson shaped its landscape and informed its “earth ethics.” This collection of Native biographies, one from each of the twelve Indian nations of Wisconsin, introduces the reader to some of the most important figures in Native sustainability: from anti-mining activists like Walt Bresette (Red Cliff Ojibwe) and Hillary Waukau (Menominee) to treaty rights advocates like James Schlender (Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwe), artists like Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk), and educators like Dorothy “Dot” Davids (Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians), along with tribal genealogists, land stewards, and preservers of language and culture. Each of the biographies speaks to traditional ecological values and cultural sensibilities, highlighting men and women who helped to sustain and nurture their nations in the past and present.

The Native people whose lives are depicted in Seventh Generation Earth Ethics understood the cultural gravity that kept their people rooted to their ancestral lands and acted in ways that ensured the growth and success of future generations. In this way they honor the Seventh Generation philosophy, which cautions decision makers to consider how their actions will affect seven generations in the future – some 240 years.

-Wisconsin Historical Society Press