Although the controversy has waned, white sportsmen’s anger toward American Indian fishermen reached a boiling point in the late 1980s and early ’90s. White protesters hurled verbal — and occasionally physical — assaults at American Indians who exercised their treaty rights by spearfishing during the spring spawn in northern Wisconsin lakes.
Dr. Larry Nesper, an assistant professor in American Indian studies program at the University of Wisconsin, was a guest speaker Feb. 24 in the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums class. During a PowerPoint presentation, Nesper, author of The Walleye War, chronicled government documents, treaties, and court decisions that eventually enabled American Indians to fish and hunt on ceded land.
In the 1800s, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld sovereignty for American Indians, Nesper explained. In the following century, that sovereignty was eroded in another series of laws and treaties. Treaties of 1837 and 1842 were central documents regarding American Indian hunting and fishing rights. In those treaties, the Ojibwe ceded land in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan but retained rights to hunt, fish, and gather off-reservation. When the Ojibwe attempted to exercise those rights in the 1950s, it set off another round of litigation. However, the 1983 watershed decision in Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Voigt reaffirmed American Indians’ rights to hunt, fish, and gather off-reservation. Federal Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in 1991 that the state could not interfere with Ojibwe hunting, fishing, and trapping on public lands within the ceded territory in Wisconsin. These rulings set off racist protests at boat landings during the walleye harvest.
Spearfishing continues today. However, the tradition is allowed only on certain lakes, and bag limits are enforced. State game wardens monitor the harvest, and every fish is measured and identified. The number of fish harvested during the spawn is a tiny fraction of the overall haul taken during the standard fishing season.
Mike Cross, director of public library development for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, also spoke to the class Feb. 24. He explained how state library law affects public libraries, including Wisconsin’s five tribal libraries. The law mandates that library directors attain certification, that libraries are open at least 20 hours per week, and that they spend at least $2,500 annually on materials. In return, libraries receive state services and are eligible for federal funding.
The department is considering establishing less restrictive rules for tribal libraries, but such action would require passage of legislation. These rules will be important as the class tries to help build a public library on the Red Cliff Reservation.