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Last reviewed August 2010

Resources on Minnesota Issues
Indian Fishing and Hunting Rights

This guide is compiled by staff at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library on a topic of interest to Minnesota legislators. It is designed to provide an introduction to the topic, directing the user to a variety of sources, and is not intended to be exhaustive.

In 1990, the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians (also known as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe) sued the state of Minnesota, asserting that an 1837 treaty with the U.S. government gave them the right to hunt, fish, and gather free of state regulation on land ceded in the treaty. In an attempt to avoid a lengthy court battle, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Mille Lacs Band worked together to reach a settlement agreement. That agreement would have required the band to withdraw their lawsuit, limit the Lake Mille Lacs walleye harvest to 24,000 pounds per year, and adhere to a band conservation code. In return, the state would give the band $8.6 million, 7,500 acres of land, and exclusive fishing rights on 4.5% of Lake Mille Lacs. The agreement also allowed traditional spear fishing and netting practices. During the 1993 session the Minnesota Legislature narrowly defeated the negotiated settlement. Legislators opposed to the settlement argued that the use of gill nets would decimate the walleye population and harm tourism. Treaty proponents argued that the use of gill nets and spears were important components of Indian culture and religion and that their use would be limited.

On August 24, 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Diana Murphy ruled that the Mille Lacs Band retained the hunting, fishing, and gathering rights granted in the 1837 treaty. (Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians et al. v. State of MN et al., 861 F. Supp. 784, 841 (D. Minn. 1994)). A second phase of the trial was ordered to determine the band's fish and game allocation and the extent of any state regulation. Phase II concluded on January 29, 1997 when District Court Judge Michael Davis ruled that the band's fishing and hunting activities in the twelve-county region were to be regulated by the band's Conservation Code, rather than by the state's fish and game rules.

The state of Minnesota filed an appeal with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March 1997. On August 26, 1997, a three-judge panel of the circuit court upheld the lower court decisions. In November 1997, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request to reconsider the ruling of the three-judge panel. An appeal was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court which heard the case on December 2, 1998. On March 24, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a 5-4 vote that the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa retain the hunting and fishing rights guaranteed to them under the 1837 treaty. In December 1999 U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis ordered the state of Minnesota to pay the legal expenses of the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa and six other bands. They were awarded a total of $3.95 million.

The Lake Mille Lacs walleye harvest was to be regulated by an agreement developed by the bands of Chippewa and the Minnesota DNR. Frustrations with annual modifications to the regulations, combined with a record walleye harvest in 2002, led to a December 2002 mediated agreement that established a five-year management plan for the Lake Mille Lacs walleye harvest. The plan started in 2003. Annual harvest levels are established by the 1837 Ceded Territory Fisheries Committee, which is composed of tribal and state biologists.

In May 2010, several members of the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa placed fishing nets on Lake Bemidji in defiance of the State of Minnesota's fishing laws. Supported by members of the White Earth Band of Chippewa, the nets were placed to call attention to their belief that the rights of band members to fish, hunt, and gather in large portions of northern Minnesota were retained when the 1855 treaty was signed with the U.S. government. If the case ends up in a court, it may set the stage for a challenge to Minnesota's laws that could lead to a decision on band members' rights under the treaty.

Legislative History

The proposed agreement was discussed at great length by the 1993 Legislature (Senate File 1619/House File 575). Ultimately, the bill did not pass.

Significant Books and Reports

1837 Treaty Boundary. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1997. (G1426.F1 M62 1997 Maps)

1854 Treaty

Adopted Expedited Emergency Game and Fish Rules: Waters With Restrictions on Taking Fish; Designated Special Management Waters. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 2005.

"Control of Natural Resources in Indian Country," in Indians, Indian Tribes and State Government. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, House Research Department, 1993. (E93.I53 1993)

Erlinder, Peter. The Anishinabe Nation's Right to a Modest Living From the Exercise of Off-Reservation Usufructuary Treaty Rights in All of Northern Minnesota. St. Paul, MN, 2010?

Fish in the Lakes, Wild Rice, and Game in Abundance: Testimony on Behalf of Mille Lacs Ojibwe Hunting and Fishing Rights. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2000. (KFM 5905.6.H85 F57 2000)

Hanaway, Don. History of the Chippewa Treaty Rights Controversy. Madison: Wisconsin Department of Justice, 1989. (KFW 2905.6.H85 H36 1989)

Ojibwe Treaty Rights. Odanah, WI: Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, 2014. (E99.C6 O35 2014)

Settlement Agreement Between the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians and the State of Minnesota Regarding Treaty Hunting, Fishing and Gathering Rights. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1993.(E99.C6 S48 1993)

Sternberg, Dick. The Mille Lacs Fish Management Plan: Threat to Minnesota's Premier Walleye Fishery. 2002. (SH351.W3 S74 2002)

Sternberg, Dick. The New Mille Lacs Plan: A Closer Look. Elk River, MN: Proper Economic Resource Management, 2003?.

Whaley, Rick. Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and For the Earth. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1994. (E99.C6 W43 1994)

Zapffe, Carl Andrew. Minnesota's Chippewa Treaty of 1837. Brainerd, MN: Historic Heartland Association, Inc., 1994. (E99.C6 Z376 1994)

Significant Articles

Anderson, Dennis. "Chippewa to Fish Early in Treaty Clash: Two bands Will Flout State Law by Fishing May 14, Saying 1854 Treaty Granted Rights to Most of Northern Minnesota." Star Tribune, April 22, 2010.

Anderson, Dennis. "Mille Lacs Conflict." St. Paul Pioneer Press (Three-part series, April 4, 1993 - April 6, 1993.)

LaDuke, T. "1837 Treaty Rights upheld in US Supreme Court." De Bah Ji Mon, Winter 1999, p. 1, 15. (Includes a chronology covering the years 1837-1999.)

Masten, Stephen B. et al. "Indian Treaty Hunting and Fishing Rights Disputes: The 1837 Treaty Case." The Hennepin Lawyer, September-October 1993, p. 12-15.

Meryhew, Richard et al. "Tribal Treaty Rights Upheld." Star Tribune, March 25, 1999, p. A1. (Includes a timeline of the treaty case.)

Mille Lacs Regulations. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Oakes, Larry. "Minnesota Case Holds High Stakes for Indian Treaty Law." Star Tribune, Nov. 29, 1998, p. 1A.

Ovsak, Catherine M. "Reaffirming the Guarantee: Indian Treaty Rights to Hunt and Fish Off-Reservation in Minnesota." William Mitchell Law Review, Fall 1994, p. 1177-1212.

Price, David. "House Amends, Twice Rejects Revised Settlement." Session Weekly, May 7, 1993, p. 3-4.

Smith, Doug. "Collision Course? The walleye harvest levels for the Chippewa bands on Lake Mille Lacs stir debate." Star Tribune, March 2, 2011.

Smith, Doug. "DNR Eyeing Consistent Mille Lacs Fishing Regulations." Star Tribune, February 24, 2008.

Smith, Doug. "DNR, Tribe Reach Deal on Mille Lacs Walleye." Star Tribune, December 4, 2002, p. B1.

Smith, Doug. "Mille Lacs Quotas Change Slightly." Star Tribune, February 2, 2010.

Spielman, Tim. "Mille Lacs Safe Harvest Up; State Quota takes Dip." Outdoor News, February 5, 2010.

"A Lower Safe Harvest on Mille Lacs in '08". Outdoor News, February 1, 2008, p. 1, 16.

"Special Focus: 1837 Treaty Case." Masinaigan, Spring 1997, pp. 1-13.

Significant Internet Resources

Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) -- An agency of eleven Ojibwe nations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, with off-reservation treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather in treaty-ceded lands.

The Mille Lacs Controversy -- Summarizes the issue and provides copies of key court documents. From the website of University of Minnesota Professor Rod Squires.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) -- MPR's website has several archived stories on the issue including, The Mille Lacs Treaty Rights Case and Treaty Rights and Tribal Sovereignty.

Additional Library Resources

For historical information, check the following codes in the Newspaper Clipping File and the Vertical File:
I12.10F (Indians of North America - Fishing & Hunting Rights)

For additional reports at the Legislative Reference Library, use these Library catalog searches:
Indian Treaties (Minnesota); Indian Fishing and Hunting (Minnesota)


Groups Involved with this Issue

Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, 645 State Office Building, Saint Paul, MN  55155