Last reviewed August 2020
Minnesota Issues Resource Guides
American Indian Fishing and Hunting Rights
This guide is compiled by staff at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library on a topic of interest to state legislators. It introduces the topic and points to sources for further research. It is not intended to be exhaustive.
Legislative History • Books and Reports • Articles • Internet Resources • Additional Library Resources • Groups
In 1990, the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians (also known as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe) sued the state of Minnesota, asserting that an 1837 treaty with the U.S. government gave them the right to hunt, fish, and gather free of state regulation on land ceded in the treaty. In an attempt to avoid a lengthy court battle, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Mille Lacs Band worked together to reach a settlement agreement. That agreement would have required the band to withdraw their lawsuit, limit the Lake Mille Lacs walleye harvest to 24,000 pounds per year, and adhere to a band conservation code. In return, the state would give the band $8.6 million, 7,500 acres of land, and exclusive fishing rights on 4.5% of Lake Mille Lacs. The agreement also allowed traditional spear fishing and netting practices. During the 1993 session the Minnesota Legislature narrowly defeated the negotiated settlement. Legislators opposed to the settlement argued that the use of gill nets would decimate the walleye population and harm tourism. Treaty proponents argued that the use of gill nets and spears were important components of Indian culture and religion and that their use would be limited.
On August 24, 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Diana Murphy ruled that the Mille Lacs Band retained the hunting, fishing, and gathering rights granted in the 1837 treaty (Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians et al. v. State of MN et al., 861 F. Supp. 784, 841 (D. Minn. 1994)). A second phase of the trial was ordered to determine the band's fish and game allocation and the extent of any state regulation. Phase II concluded on January 29, 1997 when District Court Judge Michael Davis ruled that the band's fishing and hunting activities in the twelve-county region were to be regulated by the band's Conservation Code, rather than by the state's fish and game rules.
The State of Minnesota filed an appeal with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March 1997. On August 26, 1997, a three-judge panel of the circuit court upheld the lower court decisions. In November 1997, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request to reconsider the ruling of the three-judge panel. An appeal was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court which heard the case on December 2, 1998. On March 24, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a 5-4 vote that the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa retain the hunting and fishing rights guaranteed to them under the 1837 treaty. In December 1999 U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis ordered the state of Minnesota to pay the legal expenses of the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa and six other bands. They were awarded a total of $3.95 million.
The Mille Lacs Lake walleye harvest was to be regulated by an agreement developed by the bands of Chippewa and the Minnesota DNR. Frustrations with annual modifications to the regulations, combined with a record walleye harvest in 2002, led to a December 2002 mediated agreement that established a five-year management plan for the Lake Mille Lacs walleye harvest. The plan started in 2003. Annual harvest levels are established by the 1837 Ceded Territory Fisheries Committee, which is composed of tribal and state biologists.
In May 2010, several members of the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa placed fishing nets on Lake Bemidji in defiance of the State of Minnesota's fishing laws. Supported by members of the White Earth Band of Chippewa, the nets were placed to call attention to their belief that the rights of band members to fish, hunt, and gather in large portions of northern Minnesota were retained when the 1855 treaty was signed with the U.S. government. If the case ends up in a court, it may set the stage for a challenge to Minnesota's laws that could lead to a decision on band members' rights under the treaty.
Mille Lacs Lake fisheries management continues to be a contentious issue. On April 24, 2014, the group Save Mille Lacs Sport Fishing, Inc. and others filed a lawsuit in the Minnesota Court of Appeals against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The petition argues that the Department of Natural Resources did not consider the 1998 constitutional amendment ensuring Minnesotans' right to hunt and fish when the agency implemented an emergency governing fishing on Mille Lacs Lake. The emergency rule, restricting possession limits and night fishing on Mille Lacs Lake, was in response to a historic low Mille Lacs Lake walleye population. On February 17, 2015, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against the lawsuit, arguing that "the omission by the DNR of any citation to or consideration of the Preservation Provision or the public-trust doctrine does not affect the validity of Minn. R. 6264.0400, subp. 4."
The proposed agreement was discussed at great length by the 1993 Legislature (Senate File 1619/House File 575). Ultimately, the bill did not pass.
Significant Books and Reports
1837 Treaty Boundary. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1997. (G1426.F1 M62 1997 Maps)
Adopted Expedited Emergency Game and Fish Rules: Waters With Restrictions on Taking Fish; Designated Special Management Waters. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 2005.
"Control of Natural Resources in Indian Country," in American Indians, Indian Tribes, and State Government. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, House Research Department, 2017. (E93 .A44 2017)
Erlinder, Peter. The Anishinabe Nation's Right to a Modest Living From the Exercise of Off-Reservation Usufructuary Treaty Rights in All of Northern Minnesota. St. Paul, MN, 2010?
Fish in the Lakes, Wild Rice, and Game in Abundance: Testimony on Behalf of Mille Lacs Ojibwe Hunting and Fishing Rights. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2000. (KFM 5905.6.H85 F57 2000)
A Guide to Understanding Ojibwe Treaty Rights. Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, issuing body. October 2018 (E99.C6 G85 2018)
Hanaway, Don. History of the Chippewa Treaty Rights Controversy. Madison: Wisconsin Department of Justice, 1989. (KFW 2905.6.H85 H36 1989)
Mille Lacs Treaty Settlement. St. Paul: Minnesota Legislature, 1993. (E99.C6 M55 1993)
Settlement Agreement Between the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians and the State of Minnesota Regarding Treaty Hunting, Fishing and Gathering Rights. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1993.(E99.C6 S48 1993)
Sternberg, Dick. The Mille Lacs Fish Management Plan: Threat to Minnesota's Premier Walleye Fishery. 2002. (SH351.W3 S74 2002)
Sternberg, Dick. The New Mille Lacs Plan: A Closer Look. Elk River, MN: Proper Economic Resource Management, 2003?.
Whaley, Rick. Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and For the Earth. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1994. (E99.C6 W43 1994)
Zapffe, Carl Andrew. Minnesota's Chippewa Treaty of 1837. Brainerd, MN: Historic Heartland Association, Inc., 1994. (E99.C6 Z376 1994)
(articles in reverse chronological order)
Enger, John. "Explaining Minnesota's 1837, 1854, and 1855 Ojibwe Treaties." Minnesota Public Radio, February 1, 2016.
Mosedale, Mike. "Fish Fight: Court: Feds Can't Prosecute Indians in Black Market Case" Minnesota Lawyer, March 2, 2015, p. 10-11.
Dellarco, Alexandra V. "Minnesota v.Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa: 19th Century U.S. Treaty-Guaranteed Usufructuary Property Rights, the Foundation for 21st Century Indigenous Sovereignty." Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, Winter 2015, p. 143-230.
"Treaty-Guaranteed Usufructuary Rights in Minnesota: The Case of Mille Lacs v. Minnesota." Rural Minnesota Journal: RMJ, 2014.
Steffes, Matthew. "Implications for the Mille Lacs Lake Fishery with Continued Enforcement of the 1837 Treaty of St. Peters." Hamline Journal of Public Law and Policy, 2014, Issue 2, p. 367-397.
Anderson, Dennis. "Chippewa to Fish Early in Treaty Clash: Two bands Will Flout State Law by Fishing May 14, Saying 1854 Treaty Granted Rights to Most of Northern Minnesota." Star Tribune, April 22, 2010.
Meryhew, Richard et al. "Tribal Treaty Rights Upheld." Star Tribune, March 25, 1999, p. A1. (Includes a timeline of the treaty case.)
Oakes, Larry. "Minnesota Case Holds High Stakes for Indian Treaty Law." Star Tribune, November 29, 1998, p. 1A.
"Special Focus: 1837 Treaty Case." Masinaigan, Spring 1997, pp. 1-13.
Ovsak, Catherine M. "Reaffirming the Guarantee: Indian Treaty Rights to Hunt and Fish Off-Reservation in Minnesota." William Mitchell Law Review, Fall 1994, p. 1177-1212.
Masten, Stephen B. et al. "Indian Treaty Hunting and Fishing Rights Disputes: The 1837 Treaty Case." The Hennepin Lawyer, September-October 1993, p. 12-15.
Price, David. "House Amends, Twice Rejects Revised Settlement." Session Weekly, May 7, 1993, p. 3-4.
Anderson, Dennis. "Mille Lacs Conflict." St. Paul Pioneer Press (Three-part series, April 4, 1993 - April 6, 1993.)
Significant Internet Resources
Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) - An agency of eleven Ojibwe nations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, with off-reservation treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather in treaty-ceded lands.
Mille Lacs Regulations. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Additional Library Resources
For historical information, check the following codes in the Newspaper Clipping File and the Vertical File:
I12.10F (Indians of North America - Fishing & Hunting Rights)
For additional reports at the Legislative Reference Library, use these Library catalog searches:
Indian Treaties (Minnesota); Indian Fishing and Hunting (Minnesota)
Groups Involved with this Issue