Members of the Leech Lake and White Earth bands gathered Friday on the shore of Lake Bemidji to demonstrate their claims that the Treaty of 1855 guaranteed them fishing, hunting, gathering and travel rights in lands they ceded to the U.S. government.
But the tactics and tone of the group at the Lake Bemidji waterfront and the group at Diamond Point Park could hardly have been more different.
"I'm very big on education," said Leech Lake District III Representative Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird at the Diamond Point gathering. "We want to take this slow. I don't think we have to go to court. We want to make this diplomatic."
The waterfront Stop Treaty Abuse Rally, originally announced as "The Great Anishinaabe Fish Off (Reservation)," was also peaceful, but carried a far less measured tone. Demonstrators set nets in Lake Bemidji, contrary to Minnesota law and the day before fishing opener, to make the point that tribal members have the right to fish at any time, using any means and in any lake in the ceded territories.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officers arrived in boats to intercept the netters and gather evidence to turn over to the Beltrami County Attorney's Office for possible gross misdemeanor charges. The DNR officers also confiscated the fishing equipment illegal under Minnesota law.
American Civil Liberties Union Greater MN Racial Justice Director Audrey Thayer and interns passed out pamphlets advising people of the process they should follow if they are cited according to Minnesota law.
"The DNR struck the first blow today," said Dennis Banks, American Indian Movement founder and Indian rights activist. "It will not deter us. As a matter of fact, our people are becoming more angry about it."
He exhorted a crowd of about 200 people to fight back, set nets, spear and angle on every lake every day.
Banks drew cheers from his audience when he said in a strong affirmative: "Our rights are ancestral and we'll exercise our rights as long as we live. We're going to fish, and we're going to fish right here."
Peace keeper trainers Donna Howard of Duluth and Bonnie Urfer of Luck, Wis., told a group during the morning preparation that they should be ready for verbal assaults. Although the waterfront protest became heated as the afternoon progressed no counter protest or heckling occurred.
"This is a peaceful gathering," said Robert Shimek of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Stop Treaty Abuse Rally organizer. "We are not trying to violate the rights of anyone, including law enforcement officers."
But Banks stirred the crowd with more incendiary words: "Bring it on, Minnesota. Bring it on. We're waiting for you. It's going to be a long, hot summer."
By contrast, the meeting in Diamond Point Park, which offered a cookout as well as speeches, featured Leech Lake and White Earth elected officials, who had urged their members not to take part in the waterfront demonstration. White Earth District II Representative Terry Tibbetts and District I Representative Irene Auginaush spoke of an orderly examination of the treaty rights and negotiation with the state. Maria Cloud spoke for Leech Lake District I Representative Robbie Howe, saying they want to pursue their rights in a peaceful way.
Leech Lake Chairman Arthur "Archie" LaRose talked about educating not only band members, but also the community in general about tribal sovereignty as they pursue the rights inherent in the Treaty of 1855.
"We just want to do it in a professional partnership way with the state, counties and cities," he said.
Leech Lake Division of Natural Resources Director Bruce Johnson said the White Earth Tribal Council has already adopted a conservation code in relation to off-reservation treaty rights and the Leech Lake committee is ready to present their version to their Tribal Council.
Paul Swenson, retired DNR officer and a member of the Shared Vision group that is trying to improve race relations in the Bemidji community, said many cooperative agreements between tribes and the state DNR work to the advantage of everyone. He also noted that both the American Indian and non-Indian respondents involved the survey that fostered the Shared Vision movement said they believe treaty rights are important.
"At least in Bemidji, it shows strong support for treaty rights Swenson said.
Molly Miron is a reporter at The Pioneer in Bemidji, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.