There are those who (wrongly) believe that when the Chippewa/Ojibwe, Huron, and Pottowotome tribes retained their treaty fishing rights from the State of Michigan as was laid forth in the Treaty of Ghent at the conclusion of the War of 1812 in 1814. In it, all that the tribes who allied with the British was to be restored to them, and since part of what was restored to the States was lands which would become known as the State of Michigan, and there were certainly Natives who lived here, who fished the Great Lakes, this was understood. But that certainly wasn’t what happened, and in 1836 the Natives of what is the Eastern Upper Peninsula and the Northern third of the Lower Peninsula wound up ceding their land rights in order to keep their sovereign fishing rights, though in an earlier post I mentioned that this wasn’t exactly the way of it.
A common misconception is that sovereign fishing rights will provide a way for tribes to dwindle fishing supplies down to nothing, because they go unchecked since there is no one who looks over their shoulders. It isn’t as if Natives haven’t fished their own lands for about 12,000 years or more before they had the White Man to make sure they didn’t eradicate their environment, and in fact prior to the settling of North America by American settlers the people of the Chippewa/Ojibew tribes existed on roughly two cycles of living, one where they fished as a larger village from Spring to Autumn, and one where they hunted through the winter, allowing both to replenish as needed. As large commercial industry fishing took over outlets of the St. Mary’s River, which affected Eastern Superior waters, they learned to accommodate that schedule to adjust for fish preservation.
Even now, tribal fishing boards work with the Department of Natural Resources to make sure that fish levels are maintained, with fishing seasons strictly adhered to. Because every person who exercises their tribal rights must have a tribal-issued license complete with registration number it is easy to track every person using a legal license. Any person caught without a license is subject to the same penalties that a non-tribal angler would be. If that angler is a net user, their registration number must be affixed to their nets, and the location of those nets must be on file. You are required to keep track of where you lay and leave your nets, which only makes sense for finding them. It helps both the fisher find their nets and the tribal board and the DNR watch for poachers.
The DNR is very strict in assessing their control. The lead “sinkers” that are used to weigh nets, and the anchor buoys used to keep them in place sometimes will drift, but they must be affixed with your registration number. If they drift, or if a storm were to toss your nets to a location where your nets don’t belong the DNR has full authority to seize control of your nets, equipment, and catch, and pull it. Because your reg. number is also affixed they will also come to your house and fine you for the infraction (and if you are tribal, which net users are, the tribal board can as well, but not the State itself). Your catch is sold off, or donated to a State or County home.
This has happened to us on more than one occasion, even though we do stick very carefully to the letter of the laws. Things happen.
But the DNR, even if it maintains otherwise, is a State agency at its lower level, and there is a long and heated history of tension between Indian and non-Indian fishing and those who believe that one side is being favored. In an area that is so dense with tribal fishing, and having people who have the exceptions to the “non-commercial” policy of treaty fishing rights around, the DNR has been known to keep an “extra vigilant” eye on net fishing. It isn’t hard, because Lake Superior fishing is almost (if not exclusively) that of the solely of the tribal fishery. If they go out and poke around a set of nets, odds dictate that they are going to pull of a gang owned by a tribal fisherman.
Things have become better in recent years, or so I am told, with the authority handed down by the State police to “deputize” local tribal police to watch out for non-tribal on tribal crime, but I don’t know if this has been affected. I do know that it has long been a tense situation, and if my impression of the DNR is colored by this, it is not without reason. Spawning season can be a long and hard couple of months without steady income, relying on frozen stores to get by in a good year, and to have your first nets of the season confiscated can be a tough pill. There is nothing saying the State doesn’t benefit from paying an inordinate amount of attention to tribal fisheries, but that doesn’t mean that tribal fishers don’t screw up.
There is oversight, though. We have our own boards and license commissions. We are required to file for a license through that bureau like non-tribal members. A license is held for life, though, and can be willed or handed down, even sold if you want to another member. My grandfather will probably give his to my brother who will benefit from it more than I would. I think there are even circumstances under which you can lose it, if you misuse it or abuse it. You also have to stick to treaty waters, waters governed by your own tribe, etc.
My tribe was lucky, and they fared better than those of the Pacific Northwest tribes in Washington State, or those in Minnesota, who had their rights poorly translated when disputes arose, but they weren’t come by easily. Of course, many can argue that no tribe has come by any of their rights easily.
But that is something for another day. The concept that tribal fishers are just not well governed is hogswash. Tribes are uniquely placed to know how many members they have and to cooperate with the DNR on the number of fish that can be safely harvested, and what measure will need to be taken to preserve it. It doesn’t do anyone any good to chase the last fish into a net, though I don’t hear too much talk of opening hatcheries and farming from leisure anglers, only that we treaty-rights anglers are taking up all the resources and getting so much “special treatment”.