“Wednesday, March 24, 1999, dawned like a perfect spring day – the sun glistened in a bright blue, cloudless sky, and a slight breeze chilled by the ice blew off the big lake. The first rumors started early. They spread quickly as a brush fire through the Mille Lacs area. By 10 a.m. the word was out. The highest court in the land had ruled 5-4, affirming Indian hunting, fishing and gathering rights under the treaty of 1837, and a divisive dispute over an issue that had locked two cultures into battle for nine years was suddenly reduced to a single moment in history.” ~ James Baden, Mille Lacs Messenger, March 31, 1999
“IT’S OVER!” shouted the headline of the March 31, 1999 issue of the Mille Lacs Messenger regarding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of March 24, 1999 affirming the Indian hunting, fishing and gathering rights under the 1837 treaty. It was a court battle that lasted longer than World War II – nine grueling years – costing over $2 million. Messenger coverage of the case was extensive from beginning to end.
The historic Supreme Court ruling was met with mixed emotions. During a press conference in front of the Mille Lacs Band Government Center in 1999, tribal leaders and several resort owners spoke.
“Today, the United States has kept a promise,” the 1999 Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Marge Anderson said. “A promise that agreements are made to be honored, not broken.”
Marge Anderson has since passed away June 29, 2013. The Mille Lacs Band Government Center where the press conference was held now bares her name in her honor. It is now called the Biidaabinookwe Government Center.
Randy Thompson, the attorney for the landowners in the case was less than happy at the time. “Obviously, the first word that comes to mind is disappointment.”
Thompson added the mood at the annual PERM meeting the night before the announcement was somber but the group stood strong saying their work was not done.
“We think the court’s opinion was wrong because it had bad policy,” Thompson added.
Others expressed hope and resolve. David Oberfeld, Mille Lacs County Commissioner, said the county respects the decision of the court and “will work with the Mille Lacs Band to be good stewards of our natural resources for all people and for future generations. We look forward to a good working relationship with the Mille Lacs Band.”
Others, like state senator Dan Stevens was outraged. “It was like a punch in the stomach,” he said.
His counter-part in the House of Representatives, Sondra Erickson, said a decision in favor of the landowners would have been a move towards “equality,” and she added, “Right now I’m in mourning.”
Area resorters and the members of the tourism council stood together with Mille Lacs Band leaders in front of the Mille Lacs Band Government Center responding with their own comments of hope.
“We must put the past in the past,” executive director of the local tourism council Judy Cain said back then. “It’s over. We are going to move on. The Band is willing and so are we.” Cain also said the tourism council would continue to promote the area as a tourism destination. Judy Cain has since passed away June 25, 2010.
“This is two cultures coming together promoting a beautiful area,” Dave Bently, (former) owner of Eddy’s Mille Lacs Lake Resort said.
Eddy Lyback was hopeful “the Band will work closely with the DNR to hold true to their promise to protect the resource.”
First five-year plan
Prior to the final court decision the court ordered the state and the eight Bands who were signatories to the 1837 treaty to co-manage the resource. They came up with the safe harvest level system whereby each side would have certain allocations. The Bands were allowed a walleye harvest of 40,000 pounds in 1998, the first year of the new five-year plan, of which the actual total harvest was 31,102 pounds. While the state anglers allocation was 220,000 pounds with actual harvest of 402,313 pounds.
In the five-year plan, each year the Band’s harvest level would increase up to 100,000 pounds in the year 2002. After that, they were to agree on a new five-year plan.
Since that time, the Bands and the state have worked together to co-manage the resource setting an annual harvest quota each year.
That was then, this is now
Don Wedll was the Mille Lacs Band Commissioner of Natural Resources long before the case began and throughout the full legal battle. “Basically it was and is a problem with history – people lost track of what is the right thing to do. Now, 20 years later, they are still asking those questions of what is right.”
Wedll remembered the “Dead Sea” era of Mille Lacs Lake. “It began in 1984 long before it bottomed out. Scientists recommended then that only a certain amount of walleye should be taken.”
Minnesota DNR records indicate they began tracking harvest levels in 1983. DNR records show in 1992 state anglers harvested 1,174,106 pounds with an average of a half million pounds annually until 2003 when the state harvest was a mere 66,492 pounds – the Dead Sea became the catch phrase.
The co-management of Mille Lacs began in 1997 and the first safe harvest levels were set for both tribal and state anglers for that same year. The state allocation in 1997 was 320,000 pounds and actual harvest was 338,108 pounds – 6 percent over. The Band allocation was set at 2,000 pounds with the actual harvest at 1,659 pounds – 17 percent under.
“The answers are that people need to follow what the scientists say. If not, it’s a disaster,” Wedll said.
Rep. Erickson said she was in mourning 20 years ago when the decision was announced. Her opinion now appears to not have changed. “I have observed over the years how the sovereignty of the State of Minnesota has been limited, even eroded, by this 5-4 decision,” Erickson said via email. “For example, I long for a day when the DNR recognizes the need for transparency and more accountability, and they and the Bands agree to invite area experts such as guides, resort owners, business owners and residents to participate in the fisheries technical committee meetings. Such action will prove that sovereignty is the power of the people to govern.”
The Mille Lacs Band has been celebrating their tribal sovereignty tradition and 20 years later remain determined to continue to protect the valuable resource that is essential to Ojibwe culture.
March 24, 1999 is a date the Band will never forget. “On this day, we are reminded of our courageous leaders who fought this battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, showing generations to come that our tribal sovereignty and inherent rights must never be compromised,” current Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said. “Twenty years later, Mille Lacs Band members proudly exercise our treaty rights and we will continue to teach our youth our traditional ways for many years to come.”