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Leech Lake, White Earth members to demonstrate treaty fishing rights on Lake Bemidji

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Members of the Leech Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe have announced their intention to fish for walley in Lake Bemidji May 14, the day before the May 15 walleye opener.

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"This is more of a re-exertion of our rights rather than a confrontation," said Dale Green, a member of the Leech Lake Band Legal Department. "We're moving forward, and we're going to do it in a non-confrontational, non-violent manner."

Scott Pengelly of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Office of Communication and Outreach said Wednesday, "We haven't been contacted by the bands about their intentions, and we can't respond to something we haven't seen. What we have is a news article."

Green said organizers don't encourage those joining the protest to bring nets or spearing gear, but they intend to cast their lines in the lake off the downtown Bemidji waterfront.

The object, Green said, is to enforce the treaty signed in 1855, in which Ojibwe bands ceded lands to the United States but retained their ancestral rights to hunt, fish and gather.

Green said organizers would discuss the demonstration with DNR officials and law enforcement, but added he that expects the rights of the protesters to be observed. He said Leech Lake members had established an "1855 committee" about six months ago.

The movement was organized more than a decade after the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe won a similar claim in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case. Green said the Mille Lacs fishery is healthy and shows no harm from the Ojibwe assertion of treaty-rights fishing.

"We don't want to hurt tourism or sport fishermen," Green said.

He said he believed Leech Lake and White Earth officials could work with the DNR to manage the fisheries and designate lakes suitable for netting and spearing.

"Before we do anything, we're going have the scientific and resource data behind us," Green said. "We want to be good neighbors. It's not in our best collective interest to cause problems."

Similar assertions of fishing rights by other Ojibwe bands sometimes led to violence, such as during the 1980s in northern Wisconsin. However, Green said the Leech Lake and White Earth bands are announcing their plans ahead of time to try to avoid that.

"The federal government and the state of Minnesota learned what not to do in Wisconsin," he said.

Besides, he added, anti-hate-crime laws have been strengthened since then.

Gary Frazer, executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, of which both Leech Lake and White Earth are members, said the bands planning the demonstration May 14 have not asked for MCT support, nor discussed plans with MCT.

"The (Minnesota Chippewa) Tribe recognizes the individual sovereignty of each band and the right to express their sovereignty," Frazer said.

Green said tribal attorneys plan to send a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty laying out their claim. "We want the governor to talk with us and be aware of what we're doing, why we're doing it, and if he can assist us," he said.

Some other Ojibwe bands in northern Minnesota, such as Grand Portage, already enjoy treaty-based rights to hunt and fish off reservation, Green said. When federal courts recognized the rights of bands in northern Wisconsin in the 1980s, the case also included tribes in northeastern Minnesota.

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