Mille Lacs v. Minnesota

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Nick Vander Puy:
Mark Slonim, we’re on the Bad River Reserve in northwestern Wisconsin. We’re celebrating 25 years of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. Some of the fruits of the treaty movement are a feast we’re having tonight. We still have treaty rights, and there’s still a Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. What are some of those fruits of the treaty rights movement?

Marc Slonim:
Well, let me mention a few things. One thing is an understanding of history and how treaties were made, why they were made, what Indian objectives were in those treaties, and all of that was necessary in order to vindicate treaty rights and to litigate treaty rights. But the, the knowledge of what happened and what Indian people were seeking to accomplish in the treaties—and what they did accomplish—came out of a lot of research that was done for the litigation: preservation of Indian cultural traditions, Indian spirituality that was, that’s related to hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering—all of that has been one of the fruits of the treaty rights movement. Organizations such as GLIFWC, inter-tribal collaborations, the strength tribes have when they work together, and the ability not only to protect their treaty rights, but now to work in a very effective way on environmental protection, benefits that flow from protecting the environment, not just to Indian people, but to all people—all of that’s come out of the treaty rights movement as well.

Vander Puy:
Jim Schlender used to say that the exertion of treaty rights in Wisconsin and the acceptance, the eventual acceptance by the DNR, was a bold and innovative remedy for past injustice and debts due. Do you think that’s true?

Slonim:
I think that is true. When we look back at what happened during the treaty era and the subsequent years in the 1800s, there were great injustices done. One of the central issues in the treaty rights litigation involved a removal order that was issued in 1850, which was designed to move Ojibwa from northern Wisconsin to northern Minnesota, not because there was conflict with settlers, not because there was Indian depredations or harassment, but because people in Minnesota thought they could make more money if the Indian agency was moved into northern Minnesota. Hundreds of Ojibwa died in efforts to remove them and in their resistance, and the treaty rights was really what they were able to secure out of all of that, and so—I think Jim was right about that.

Vander Puy:
Ok, Marc Slonim, you argued Mille Lacs vs. Minnesota on behalf of the tribes.  It was a very close decision, it was 5-4.  Everything was at stake during that case.  What was persuasive about the arguments that you brought to the Supreme Court?

Slonim:
I think there were a couple things, but most importantly, I think, was trying to convey to the court the importance of these rights to Indian people, to have the court understand how much tradition, how much culture, how much spirituality was bound up in Indian harvest practices that were outlawed by the state of Minnesota, that had been outlawed by the state of Wisconsin, not because it was necessary to prohibit them to protect resources but because the state didn’t want to accommodate them. There’s nothing inherently wrong from anybody’s perspective with netting or spearing fish in terms of resource protection. And to Indian people these were traditions that went back millennia, and their preservation went to the heart of an Indian way of life that people were trying to preserve. To get the court to understand what was really at stake in this case, it wasn’t a fight between sportsmen and Indians that was being fought on some level about who was going to get the fish and who wasn’t going to get the fish. It was about preserving traditions, and I think that was really at the heart of the case and we tried to communicate that to the court. Beyond that, we wanted to communicate to the court what the treaties meant and how they were implemented, injustices that were done to Indian people, and that, what the, from the Indian perspective what they were trying to do was simply uphold promises that had been made to them and solemnized in treaties. And I think we were able to communicate that to the court as well.

Vander Puy:
Facing the future, lakes are drying up, some of the fish are inedible from mercury contamination.  How might treaty rights be used as a defense of Anishinaabe homelands?

Slonim:
Well, those are, those are huge and difficult issues, but treaty rights can play a role in addressing them, not by themselves, they’re not a silver bullet, that you invoke treaty rights and those problems go away, but they can be part of an arsenal that can be used to begin turning things around. In the Pacific Northwest, the tribes are currently litigating with the state of Washington over culverts that block fish passage using treaty rights in order to protect the environment and preserve fisheries. And I think in the state of Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Minnesota, as tribes and other people confront environmental problems, treaty rights are one of the tools that can be brought to bear to try to restore habitat, preserve habitat and improve quality of the environment for everybody.

Vander Puy:
This is Nick Vander Puy and Marc Slonim on the Bad River Reservation in northwestern Wisconsin, for Indian Country TV.

Video courtesy of Indian Country TV, 2009
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lilj4gz1I0c

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