BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) — Ojibwe band members went fishing before last year’s opener to force a treaty dispute into court, but the state still hasn’t brought charges, and the issue is ongoing even as the 2011 opener approaches.
The Leech Lake and White Earth bands have been fighting for the right to fish and hunt in northern Minnesota without government interference. They say an 1855 treaty with the federal government exempts them from observing the state’s hunting and fishing seasons and other regulations.
Minnesota Public Radio reported Wednesday that the two bands recently created a conservation code they hope will one day regulate not only hunting and fishing for band members on reservations, but across much of northern Minnesota. The code would go as far as to regulate off-reservation spearing and netting on some lakes.
Mike Swan, White Earth’s director of natural resources, said the tribes want to negotiate and aren’t looking for an ugly court battle like the one between the state and the Mille Lacs band. In that case more than a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state.
“People hear that the tribes are getting their treaty rights and they think that the Indians are going to come and take all their fish away,” Swan said. “Well, that’s not the case. We want to make sure this is done in a good way and properly.”
The bands want to co-manage resources within the treaty area with the Department of Natural Resources and to have the power to issue hunting and fishing permits. They also want violators to go to tribal rather than state court.
During last year’s rally on Lake Bemidji, roughly 100 people demonstrated by setting nets on the lake the day before the opener. None have been prosecuted.
The case against one of the tribal members, Aaron White Sr., is in the hands of Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver, who has twice asked the attorney general’s office to take it. Faver argues that it’s a constitutional question with statewide implications. But a spokesman for the attorney general’s office said misdemeanor cases belong at the county level.
Rally organizer Bob Shimek, of the White Earth reservation, blamed the inaction on a lack of resources.
“Right now the state is broke,” Shimek said. “Everybody is broke. Nobody has the money, the millions, the tens of millions of dollars it takes to go into a court action like this.”
Tribal members said they’ve spoken with DNR officials regarding treaty rights, but DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen wouldn’t confirm that. He said the DNR wants county attorneys to prosecute game law violations, regardless of who commits them.
“I think everybody would like to see some resolution,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the larger treaty issues can find an appropriate resolution through the judicial process.”
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