Indian Fishing and Wild Rice Harvesting, in Context

Michael McNally

This column was originally published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The recent assertion by Ojibwe community members of rights under the Treaty of 1855 to gather wild rice and fish on ceded lands at Gull Lake and Hole in the Day (“Tension mounts between DNR, Indian protesters,” Aug. 29) hit close to home for me. I grew up fishing Gull Lake from a family summer home on it and remember as a kid catching a big northern pike trolling the same bar where two Ojibwe men set a gill net.

It also hits close to home because, as a researcher, I’ve come to learn of the remarkably deep continued relationship that many Ojibwe people have with Gull Lake and its environs. I’ve also come to learn of how Minnesota’s economic viability has been intertwined with U.S. violations of the 1855 treaty. In addition to the likely strength of the Ojibwe legal case, this is important context to the events of last week.

In the Treaty of 1855, by which the U.S. gained title to much of northern Minnesota, Ojibwe leaders reserved rights to homelands at Gull Lake, hence the terminology of a “reservation.” Under pressure in light of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota war, Ojibwe leaders in 1864 ceded lands on the Gull Lake Reservation and elsewhere. The Gull Lake community moved temporarily to Crow Wing, and later reluctantly made its own way to the newly created White Earth reservation in 1868.

The writer and storyteller Anne Dunn, a descendant of those Gull Lake settlers at White Earth, once asked whether I knew of a place on Gull Lake where there is a spit of sand pointing in the water. I indicated that there were a couple possibilities, now submerged by a dam on the Gull River. She told of her family’s story of how a young woman each morning was sent to the end of the sand point to offer prayers on behalf of the village. My hunch was correct: This was the now-submerged sand spit at the south end of Gull Lake formerly known as Squaw Point, using the derogatory sexual term for native women, and now renamed Gull Point. I often think of how several generations of alienation could not erase the stories that connect Dunn’s family to Gull Lake, even as any Ojibwe presence there has been erased from the memory of those who park their pontoons off that point to swim and party.

Similarly, flagrant violations of the 1855 treaty by the U.S. are hardly forgotten. Beginning in the early 1880s, at the behest of U.S. Sen. William Washburn, a grain-milling magnate, the U.S. began building a series of dams on Mississippi River headwaters lakes in order to secure reliable flows over St. Anthony Falls to power grain mills owned by Washburn and others, and to aid in navigation. It seemed to come as an afterthought that the proposed dams might impact Ojibwe people living in profound relationship with those lakes on homelands recognized as reservations in the 1855 treaty. As a result of the first two dams alone, Leech Lake rose 4 feet and Winnibigoshish 14 feet above benchmark levels, flooding Winnie by a conservative government estimate of nearly 50,000 acres. Later estimates that formed the basis of a federal settlement more than a century later identified 178,000 acres of lands submerged by the two dams.

As if losing almost 200,000 acres of the reservation when the ink on the treaties was barely dry were not enough, the resource base on which subsistence relied was devastated. The flooding inundated the vast beds at water’s edge of wild rice, and displaced fish populations and threatened their ability to reproduce. The flooding lay waste to homes, gardens, villages, graves and — according to the chorus of Ojibwe voices — the social and spiritual bonds of the good life on the land. Legally confined to their reservations, Ojibwe people at Winnie and Leech were increasingly desperate.

To such injury, the U.S. added the insult of paltry proposed “damages” for the obliteration of wild-rice beds and loss of treaty reserved land from its unilateral action — one commission offered a penny per flooded acre — and outraged Ojibwe leaders rejected several proposed settlements. Ojibwe legal claims from the dams would not be settled for a century. But even those settlements seemed fragile: During the drought of 1988, Gov. Rudy Perpich’s plan to draw down the headwaters reservoirs favored the interests of the Twin Cities over those of Ojibwe nations to treaty-secured reservation water and resources. A teacher of mine, Larry Cloud Morgan, had joined other Ojibwe community members that summer holding vigil at Winnie Dam out of a sense of responsibility for the waters, rice and fish of their homelands.

Along with the likely judicial recognition of the lawfulness of their actions (the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 1999 that the terms of the 1855 treaty did not extinguish the Mille Lacs Band’s rights to fish and gather rice on ceded lands under the 1837 treaty), this context can help understand that Ojibwe people last week were renewing their long and continuous relationship with Gull Lake and with the wild rice and fish of their homelands.
Michael McNally teaches religion at Carleton College and is the author of several books on Minnesota Ojibwe history, religion and culture. He is the author of  Honoring Elders: Aging, Authority, and Ojibwe Religion (Columbia U. Press, 2009) and Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motion (Oxford U. Press, 2000, reprinted Minn. Hist. Society Press, 2009).

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