DNR confiscates fish caught by Dakota Indians

Published 1:39 pm Saturday, May 14, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — In the middle of the night, a group of Dakota Indians threw their fishing nets into Cedar Lake. When they drew a hefty collection of fish from the water Friday morning, conservation officers stood by, ready to gather up the fish.

The Dakota were asserting what they claim are rights guaranteed by an 1805 treaty. They say the treaty allows them to hunt and fish whenever they want. But officers from the Department of Natural Resources, who laid out the 59 fish and tossed them into large plastic bags as evidence, said no law on the books gives Dakota the right to fish out of season.

No citations were issued at the peaceful protest — which came one day ahead of the state’s walleye season opener — but the DNR will forward the names of five netters to the Hennepin County attorney’s office.

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“They want their day in court, which is perfect, we can facilitate that,” said Capt. Greg Salo. “They were respectful of us and we were respectful of them.”

After the officers left, more than 30 supporters gathered around a campfire along the lakeshore near a large banner that read “Exerting our rights: treaty & inherent.”

Chris Mato Nunpa, a retired professor from Southwest State University who organized the event, said treaties should be upheld because they’re “white man’s supreme law.” More importantly, he said, the Dakota were in Minnesota thousands of years before white people arrived.

“We’ve always had these rights,” he said. “Thousands of years before the white man ever came here, before the United States ever was, before Minnesota ever was. That’s why we feel we can do this.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a statement he’ll review the case when it’s presented to him. Until then, he won’t comment on the issue.

Under the 1805 treaty, signed between two Dakota leaders and a U.S. Army officer, the federal government received land along the Mississippi River including much of what is now Minneapolis and St. Paul. The treaty said, in part, “The United States promise on their part to permit the Sioux to pass, repass, hunt or make other uses of said districts, as they have formerly done … .”

However, Congress nullified all its treaties with the Minnesota Dakota and abolished their reservations after the U.S.-Dakota Conflict in 1862, and most of the Dakota were expelled from Minnesota to South Dakota and Nebraska.

If the treaty is not valid, Mato Nunpa said, then ownership of the land was never transferred to the U.S. government and the Dakota still own it.

In that case, “All these guys are squatters, and they need to pay rent to us,” he said, making a sweeping motion across the scenic lake near downtown Minneapolis.

Friday’s protest came one year after several members of the Leech Lake and White Earth bands of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota netted fish on Lake Bemidji on day before the opener to assert fishing rights they contend they retain under an 1855 treaty with the federal government. None of those protesters were ticketed or arrested either, and none have been charged with violating the state’s fishing regulations.

In 1998, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe won a landmark case involving an 1837 treaty when the U.S. Supreme Court held that the band’s rights were never terminated and remain in force. The Leech Lake and White Earth bands weren’t parties to that case, but their tribal governments recently began exploring how they might reassert their treaty rights without fighting the same kind of long and expensive court battle.

Sean Buehlmann, a Dakota who lives in Minneapolis, said the Dakota gave up everything for their treaty rights, and they’re still valid.

“This is my homeland,” Buehlmann said. “It’s not your homeland, it’s mine. I want to be able to fish whenever I want. I want to be able to hunt whenever I want.”