Bands set nets, DNR officers pull them from Lake Bemidji
Bemidji, Minn. – The latest chapter in treaty disputes began
last Friday along the shores of Lake Bemidji as five members of the
Leech Lake and White Earth bands of Chippewa attempted to net
Several nets were placed in the lake, the first around 11 a.m.,
but it wasn’t until Aaron White, Sr. of Longville and Sandy Nichols
of Cass Lake went to pull the nets that the Minnesota DNR took
The pair rowed out around 1 p.m. to the black plastic jug
marking one of their two nets and began to pull it in when two
boats converged on them, and two DNR conservation officers
confiscated that net and other nets placed in the area.
White said he was issued a net custody seizure tag.
The COs confiscated all the nets placed by band members in the
area but White was the only one to receive any form of paperwork
from the state.
“That’s our lottery ticket right there,” shouted one member of
the crowd in response to the paper issued to White during the
Three DNR boats removed the nets accompanied by two boats from
Beltrami County. Conservation Officer Maj. Roger Tietz and another
officer patrolled the shoreline of Lake Bemidji while the nets were
Maj. Tietz confirmed seizure of the nets, calling them an
illegal implement and said the case was an investigation at the
“Fruits of the crime can be seized – the nets are seized and
taken and they will be held as evidence. We will prepare a case
file for the [Beltrami] County Attorney under a gross misdemeanor
The Beltrami County Attorney will review the case and determine
if charges are to be filed, Maj. Tietz said. Beltrami County
Attorney Tim Faver said on Monday he had not received any reports
from the DNR.
“Given the nature of the potential charges and the claim of
Treaty rights, I suspect it will take some time to review and
research the issue before making a decision,” Faver said in an
e-mail statement to Outdoor News.
The attempted netting was part of a larger event held at two
separate locations on the shores of Lake Bemidji to question and
publicly open the discussion regarding off-reservation treaty
rights. Organizers of the event believe that the 1855 Treaty the
Chippewa signed with the United States allows the right to fish,
hunt and gather off-reservation.
If charges are filed and the case ends up in court, it could
have significant ramifications for a region that includes some of
the state’s most popular fishing destinations
“I’ve waited 70 years to see this and while I can’t go out there
because of my bad leg, my sister is out there so it’s important for
me to be here to see this,” said Jim Merhar, a White Earth member
who attended the event.
“You go on these lakes and see all these other people stripping
the lake while the resort owners let them – there’d be no resorts
if we didn’t give all this land up,” Merhar said.
He was one of over 200 people to attend the event, most of them
members of the Minnesota and Wisconsin Chippewa tribes. Several
non-Indian onlookers attended the event, including several Bemidji
business owners, but none of them were willing to go on the record,
and they all served as peaceful observers.
In the week leading up to the event, tensions were high at the
expectation of a counter-protest or confrontation between
treaty-rights supporters and opponents. Both supports of the event
and objecting onlookers said they were thankful that everything was
On its website, Proper Economic Resource Management advised
people to stay away from the event and said if people felt the need
to observe they should only observe so as to make the protest a
“I’d like to personally thank the members of PERM and the
sporting community. I’d also like to thank the governor and DNR for
doing their job especially with it being politically incorrect to
do that,” said Doug Meyenburg, Jr., PERM president.
Meyenburg said whether it is tribal member poaching or his
neighbor poaching, the job of the DNR is to enforce the law.
‘Long hot summer’
The only heckling that took place came from several motorists
who drove by the event and shouted at sign-carrying protesters
along Paul Bunyan Drive in Bemidji.
Many of those driving by were anglers on their way to the
Bemidji area and points north for Saturday’s opening day of
“We selected this date because historically, for the state of
Minnesota, fishing is a great party. I’d like to say that this
party has gone on long enough,” said Dennis Banks.
Banks is one of the co-founders of the American Indian Movement,
a member of the Leech Lake Band, and one of the five people who
participated in the net placement on Friday. Banks accompanied his
daughter and another woman in a canoe to place a net in the lake.
They were not confronted by the DNR but their net was confiscated
while they were on shore.
At a rally held after the attempted netting, organizers of the
protest suggested that this is the first of many similar actions
planned for the summer.
“I hope they can pay somebody to sit on the lake all day,” White
said during the rally.
At the rally, Banks said organizers were not afraid of any
confrontation with the DNR or the state of Minnesota. “Bring it on,
we’re waiting for you. It’s going to be a long, hot summer, I
promise that to the state of Minnesota,” he said.
Banks said his hope is that the state and band members can sit
down and settle the issues at the negotiation table rather than
having the issue boil over or end up in the courts.
“If they take us to court I guarantee you that the state of
Minnesota will lose like they lost in Mille Lacs and
Broader enforcement issues
In addition to the five Chippewa who placed nets in Lake Bemidji
on Friday, there were numerous people fishing along the shoreline
who claimed to be Leech Lake or White Earth Band members without a
state fishing license.
“None of them were ticketed,” said Audrey Thayer, northern
office coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thayer is
a member of the White Earth Band who attended the event in her
official capacity with the ACLU to make sure people had a full and
fair opportunity to exercise their rights.
Thayer said around 23 anglers were fishing along the shoreline
without a license, including herself, and that none of them
received citations. “In my heart I could not tell my grandchildren
that I did not put my line out there as well – I casted it out
there and when the DNR showed up I had to work with them, otherwise
I would have fished more,” she said.
Thayer said she has never had a fishing license, but has a White
Earth identification card that allows her to fish in lakes on the
The larger problem, she explained, is that there is a lack of
consistency in enforcement in the seven counties encompassing the
Leech Lake and White Earth Reservations. “Often we have people who
are in positions of power who pick and choose how they’re going to
charge out and I suggest its equal to everybody; everybody should
be charged or everybody shouldn’t.”
Thayer believes that the lack of consistency in enforcement is
discriminatory to all Minnesotans. “Law enforcement turns their
head at their will and that is not justice,” she added.
Throughout the rally, different speakers expressed their
interest in making this an issue they will pursue throughout the
upcoming months and years.
White Earth member Leonard Thompson said he fears that the
situation will end up in the courts costing both sides millions of
dollars only to have the same result take place as it did with
“The only one who benefits from that are the lawyers – it could
be another divisive 10-year battle, but hopefully it comes to a
head quick,” he said.
Thompson believes that the state of Minnesota has no right to
enforce state law on a federally protected right to hunt, fish and
gather. “I’m for people being able to take their own meat and feed
their family, I just don’t understand why some people have so much
hate for the Native Americans.”
PERM has urged its members and all members of the sporting
community to stay away.
“Make it a non-event. Name-calling and racial comments don’t get
anybody anywhere and from day one we’ve been called racists but our
contention has always been working for equal hunting and fishing
rights – this is a conservation issue no matter who it involves,”
The bands hope to build on the successful legal battle by the
Mille Lacs Chippewa band to assert its fishing, hunting and
gathering rights on territory it ceded to the federal government
under an 1837 treaty. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that
those rights remain in force.
While the 1837 treaty said the Mille Lacs band would retain its
fishing, hunting and gathering rights, the 1855 treaty affecting
the Leech Lake and White Earth bands was silent on that. Peter
Erlinder, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, has
said the Supreme Court ruling and other precedents make it clear
the absence of such language in the 1855 Treaty means the two bands
never relinquished those rights. Some lawyers involved with the
Mille Lacs case, however, have said it’s not certain if the courts
would see a new challenge that way.
View video clips of the event via www.outdoornews.com/links.
The AP contributed to this story.