Conservation officers with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) seized a gill net and several dozen fish on May 13 from a small group of Dakota Indian activists at Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.
The group was fishing on Cedar Lake one day before the walleye opener to draw attention to an 1805 U.S. treaty that they say gives them the right to fish in Twin Cities lakes regardless of state law. The activists are hoping to push the case into court. No arrests were made, but DNR conservation officers took the names of at least six people and will forward them to the Hennepin County attorney’s office for possible charges. Dozens of Dakota Indians and their allies gathered on the beach of the urban lake. They cast a gill net and caught nearly 60 fish in all – including sunfish, crappies and walleye.
Capt. Greg Salo manages enforcement of the Twin Cities metro area for the DNR and said the fish will probably be frozen as evidence. Salo said the DNR will forward a report, including the names of the six individuals who were tending the gill net, to the the Hennepin County Attorney’s office for possible charges.
"But I think this is probably going to go on for a while," Salo said. "Anytime you deal with treaty rights, it’s not black and white, cut and dried."
In 1805, young army officer Zebulon Pike negotiated a deal that allowed the United States to set up a military post in what is now the Twin Cities. In return Pike gave the Dakota presents and whiskey and promised them free use of the land.
"Both native and non-native scholars say there’s over 400 plus treaties that were made between the indigenous people and the United States government," said Chris Mato Nunpa, a retired professor of Dakota studies at Southwest Minnesota State University. "And the United States government has violated every one of them."
In an interview before the protest, James Anderson, tribal chairman of the Mendota-Mdewakanton Dakota community, said protesters had hoped to be arrested, but that the protest would be a success for the group no matter what happened.
"If they let us do it, that’s what we want," Anderson said. "If they don’t let us do it and ticket us and arrest us, that’s what we want too, so we can get it into court. … [W]hen and if we go to court over this, we’ll win our rights back."
DNR conservation officers have discretion on whether to ticket people who appear to be fishing illegally, said Greg Salo, the regional enforcement manager. In this case, Salo said, the complicated nature of treaty issues – combined with the potential for multiple violations – meant that "it works best for everyone" for the county attorney to review the case and recommend charges.
In addition, Salo said, officers didn’t want to escalate the situation. "The longer our officers stay around in an area, the more we seem to agitate people," he said.
Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, said it may be a few days or even a week before the DNR forwards its report to Freeman’s office. Laszewski said prosecutors will review the case accordingly when they receive it. "We know this is not your garden variety two-line fishing case, so we’ll certainly pay close attention to it," Laszewski said.
A similar demonstration by northern Ojibwe bands at Lake Bemidji on the eve of last year’s opener has not resulted in charges. In that case, the Beltrami County attorney asked the state attorney general to handle the case. The attorney general’s office, however, said that decisions about misdemeanor charges rest at the local level.
In Minneapolis, it’s not clear whether fallout from the demonstration will be as controversial or as emotionally charged as the Bemidji protest, given that Cedar Lake is not a hot spot for walleye anglers.
The Dakota activists say they want to be charged – and have the courts decide whether the Dakota people still have rights to freely fish and hunt on land ceded to the U.S. government as part of the 1805 treaty.
But no matter the outcome, Mato Nunpa says his group, Seven Fires Summit, will continue to exercise what they believe to be their rights. He said the group will schedule a series of fishing outings in Twin Cities lakes, and will go deer hunting this fall at Fort Snelling State Park.
"Either way, whether they dismiss [the charges] or don’t dismiss it, we’re still going to be doing that hunting camp, and we’ll probably do more fishing as well," said Mato Nunpa.