In an effort to exercise what they say are their treaty rights, Chippewa tribal members plan to fish on Lake Bemidji one day before the Minnesota fishing opener.
The one-day “fish-off” protest was sparked by the tribe’s opposition to a new Enbridge pipeline across northern Minnesota, to be built either in a new corridor across ceded land where tribal members exercise their rights to hunt, fish and gather food, or in the existing corridor that crosses two reservations.
The idea behind the rally is to send a message to Minnesota officials that they don’t have the right to “sell out our terrain, our environment, our ecosystem, our clean water, our fresh fish,” said Frank Bibeau, executive director of the 1855 Treaty Authority, which represents about 25,000 Chippewa tribal members who are current beneficiaries of the 1855 Chippewa treaty with the United States.
The tribes retained the rights to hunt, fish and gather when they made the treaties, and they need a territory that sustains those things, Bibeau said. A pipeline could contaminate or jeopardize natural resources in the future, he said.
Enbridge’s proposal for a new Line 3 across northern Minnesota has been winding through the regulatory process for more than three years and is expected to be decided in June by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Several tribes and environmental groups have opposed the need for any new oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.
Enbridge’s current Line 3 transports Canadian oil to Clearbrook, Minn., through Bemidji and Grand Rapids to Superior, Wis.
The company proposes building a new Line 3, which will begin in the current corridor to Clearbrook but would then jog south to Park Rapids before heading east to the company’s big terminal in Superior. The current Line 3 — built in the 1960s — is corroding and operating at just over half capacity because of safety concerns.
Last month, an administrative law judge concluded there’s a need for a new pipeline but suggested it be built in the current corridor.
Bibeau said the tribes likely will end up fighting the PUC and Enbridge in court over a new pipeline.
In the meantime, the “fish off” will allow tribal members to exercise their treaty rights, he added. The one-day protest will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will be open to tribal members with ID cards. Bibeau expects at least 100 members. They will be told they can take fish by any method, including pole, net and spear. The harvest will be monitored by 1855 Treaty Authority board members.
Friday’s protest is similar to one on Lake Bemidji the day before the 2010 fishing opener, when tribal members wanted to assert their belief that the 1855 treaty doesn’t restrict their off-reservation rights to fish, hunt and gather. Two Leech Lake Band members placed fishing nets in the lake and, two hours later, conservation officers from the Department of Natural Resources confiscated the nets and about a dozen suckers, walleyes and northerns.
“As the agency has said in the past, the DNR position is that off-reservation harvest rights do not exist in the 1855 treaty area and that state laws will be upheld,” DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen wrote in a statement Thursday. “Persons who violate state law will be subject to enforcement action that may include warnings, citations, seizure of fishing equipment, nets, and spears.”
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788