Early in Minnesota’s statehood, the United States government signed the 1837, 1854 and 1855 treaties with Ojibwe nations in the central and northern parts of the state, effectively taking possession of the majority of the land the people (Anishinaabeg) relied on for survival.
After having been pushed off the land and hampered in their annual rounds of hunting, fishing, harvesting and gathering, food preservation and sheltering for the winter, some Ojibwe signed treaties on behalf of the people that they understood would ensure them land on which to live undisturbed. In exchange for that and some government payments, they ceded territories to the state where colonists could live and conduct logging, mining and agriculture. The 1837 and 1854 treaties guaranteed the rights to hunt, fish, gather and pray in perpetuity (forever) in the ceded territories. The 1855 Treaty was less explicit, but because of the language negotiated in the earlier treaties the people assumed they would continue to have those rights. The 1855 Treaty created the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation and protected the right of Ojibwe who live outside the reservation to continue to do so.
Many Minnesota residents have either never heard about treaty rights in the ceded territory, or think they are too far in the past to be important today. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Article II, Clause II of the U.S. Constitution affirms treaties as different from legislation; they are agreements between sovereign nations.
Public schools have not done a good job educating Minnesotans about this part of their history, and the many immigrant Minnesotans may have never heard that they live on the land under agreements set forth in treaties, but that doesn’t mean it is not important. Rights to live from the land are cherished by the Anishinaabeg, and are essential to the preservation of culture.
In 1997 the state was sued by Anishinaabeg who sought to affirm usufructory rights in the 1837 ceded territory around Mille Lacs and Knife lakes in north central Minnesota and in eastern Wisconsin. The state lost that case and as a result there is a treaty fisheries technical committee ensuring an equitable distribution of the harvest of fish in the ceded territory lakes.
Other rights to hunt for food and gather sacred items like bark and medicines also continue to exist. It is a continuous battle to ensure that they are not destroyed by construction, overuse of water, ecosystem damage and development. The state has historic preservation officers to ensure that activities respect those rights and do not destroy the ecosystems on which the Anishinaabeg depend for their health and physical and cultural survival.
Any activity that destroys native plant communities, impairs waters and prevents the use of traditional foods, medicines, building materials and sacred sites is a violation of the treaties, which continue to be the law of this land.
People who live in the ceded territories should take every opportunity to acknowledge that, and respect the agreements that allowed Minnesota to develop on Ojibwe lands in the early days of Minnesota statehood. Interpretation of the language of the treaties can be found online at the Minnesota Historical Society’s searchable resource www.mnopedia.org/