A Fight for Treaty Rights

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

Zoltan Grossman

WHEN FRENCH EXPLORERS arrived in northern Wisconsin in the seventeenth century, they came across Chippewa (Anishinabe) Indians spearing fish from canoes at night. The Anishinabe used torches to attract the fish, leading the voyagers to dub one village, “Lac du Flambeau” (Lake of the Torch).

Today in Wisconsin, spearfishing has become the focal point for a major crisis involving racism, resources and violence. When the Anishinabe ceded land to the United States in the mid-1800s, they signed treaties retaining off-reservation harvesting rights for fish, deer and timber. Article Six of the U.S. Constitution identifies treaties as part of the “Supreme Law of the Land,” superseding state laws.

A 1983 federal court decision lifted a seventy-five year state ban on exercising treaty rights, arousing the anger of many white sportsmen who claim that Native Americans have been granted “special rights,” and is “endangering” natural resources and the tourist economy in Northern Wisconsin.

However, the night-time spearfishing has netted only about three percent of the state fish harvest annually. Fish are hardly the root of the problem.

The Anti-Treaty Movement

The national coalitions—Protect Americans’ Rights and Resources (PARR) and the mare militant Stop Treaty Abuse (STA) have their headquarters in Northern Wisconsin. The antitreaty groups have unfortunately become models of grassroots community organizing and direct action. They have attracted crowds of up to 2,000 whites to rallies in towns with a population a fraction that size. STA has marketed “Treaty Beer” as a fundraiser for its anti-Indian lobbying effort.

They have staged civil disobedience actions at the boat landings where the Indian boats are launched in the Spring, ironically claiming to uphold Martin Luther King’s belief in “equal rights for everyone.” PARR and SM intend to begin this year’s demonstrations on April 14, as this issue goes to press, around the time that ice melts on the Northern lakes.

For two weeks last April and May, placid northern Wisconsin boat landings took on the air of martial law, with hundreds of riot-clad police, dogs, roadblocks and National Guard helicopters. At the boat landings, crowds of up to 1,000 protesters yelled racist taunts and death threats at the Indians (calling them “timber niggers”), threw rocks and bottles, and shot metal ball bearings with high-power slingshots. Police were injured by white protesters rushing to blockade the landings.

Out on the water, protesters’ motorboats harassed Indian boats, sometimes swamping them. At times, guns were fired from the shoreline at the spearers. Despite the militarization in the North, the Anishinabe and their supporters were often left completely unprotected at the landings, and in going to and from the landings.

A van carrying spearers was run into a ditch by a pack of protesters’ cars on a dark reservation road. On a road to one landing, a car accelerated into a crowd of pro-treaty people, including two Native elders, who quickly scattered. Police often put the Indians, their supporters and families on the same side of security fences as the protesters.

The protests took on a more ominous tone when the Milwaukee Sentinel revealed the formation of a death squad, with a $30,000 bounty on two Lac du Flambeau leaders. The daily said that the group is armed with Claymore land mines and hand grenades. The following week, two protesters were arrested at a lake with pipe bombs. Red Cliff Chippewa activist Walt Bresette said, “The only Indians out here spearing fish are those who are willing to risk their lives.”

The anti-treaty movement has developed ties with white supremacist groups. Skinheads of the White Patriots League have attended anti-treaty rallies, and the Idaho-based Aryan Nations purportedly suggested that armed white militants open fire on Indian caravans of boats and can on their way to the lakes.

The national Populist Party, whose 1988 presidential candidate was former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke, is running at least one PARR member for statewide office. STA leader Dean Crist (who calls white people “the Aryan nation”) has said that Duke “makes sense” and “sounds like he’s reading from STA literature.” This alliance goes against the grain of Wisconsin’s progressive political tradition and its long history of labor and farmers’ movements.

Agriculturally-poor northern Wisconsin has for decades been dependent on mining, logging and tourism, all of which have seen a decline in recent years. Instead of joining with the Indians for job development and ecological protection, working-class whites have been turned against their natural allies.

Bresette says that “Sooner or later, people in Northern Wisconsin will realize that (the environmental threat) is more of a threat to their lifestyle than Indians who go out and spearfish … I think, in fact, we have more things in common with the anti-Indian people than we have with the state of Wisconsin.”

The Colonization of the North

Northern Wisconsin has been targeted by a number of multinational mining companies. Exxon has for years tried to open a zinc-copper mine adjacent to the Mole Lake Reservation, Kennecott (owned by the British firm Rio Tinto Zinc) has been trying to open a copper mine; and other companies such as Union Carbide have explored for uranium on and off the reservations. The mining projects have been postponed by Indian and white ecologist opposition (while the anti-treaty movement has not said a word on protecting resources from corporate threats).

The Anishinabe have legal standing to challenge off-reservation development that would harm natural resources covered in the treaties. A mine that would kill fish downstream could be held up as an infringement of treaty rights. Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation Chair Gaiashkabos has announced plans to pursue that legal course against the nearby Kennecott project.

State Administration Secretary James Klauser, a lobbyist-on-leave for Exxon and Union Carbide, has led state efforts to buy the treaty rights from the Anishinabe. Despite being two of the poorest communities in Wisconsin, Mile Lake and Lac du Flambeau rejected lease offers of $10 million and $35 million, respectively, for a ten-year ban on off-reservation harvesting.

The offers were seen as economic blackmail—the “carrot” to PARR/STA’s “stick”—since needed economic development was hinged on a surrender of rights. No white community, Indian activists said, would be asked to give up rights to have a new school archaic built. The state offer did manage here to sow divisions between Indian traditionalists and the business-oriented tribal council.

After Lac du Flambeau rejected the lease pact, Was County Sheriff James Williquette commented, “Now it’s all-out war.” Klauser and Republican Governor Tommy Thompson called Lac du Flambeau organizers “militants,” “extremists,” and even “Indian supremacists.” They are now supporting federal congressional efforts to restrict the treaties.

Before the March 5 visit of Senator Daniel lnouye, chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Governor Thompson said that it was a good thing that anti-treaty protests have happened, since they attracted federal attention to the treaty crisis. (Last year, however, the state’s congressional delegation threatened to cut federal aid to reservations carrying out spearfishing.)

Thompson may end up mobilizing the National Guard to ‘keep the peace in Northern Wisconsin. While some Anishinabe would welcome the troops as a neutral force, others assume that they would quickly turn from protectors to adversaries, much like the historical relationship between British troops and Northern Irish Catholics. One Milwaukee Indian leader commented, “We’re supposed to be the militants, but we know who really throws the stones.”
The Pro-Treaty Movement

The pro-treaty movement has developed a sophisticated view of the crisis, combining anti-racist action, ecological and cultural education, and a class analysis of the Northern white community. The Midwest Treaty Network unites the Wa-Swa-Gon Treaty Association (which opposed the lease pact) with other grassroots reservation groups and with support groups around the region.

The support groups participate in the Witness for Nonviolence, a program to prevent, deflect and document violence at the boat landings. Milwaukee organizer Sierra Powers said, “We were asked that, if we can witness in Central America, why not in our own backyard?”

Hundreds of non-Indians, including many from the North, are being trained to stand with the Indians during the spring spearfishing season. Another network called HONOR is carrying out education on Indian rights in churches and schools. Pro-treaty activists are heeding the message of visiting South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1988: “I appeal to you to assure that your native Indians in this state can see there are people who want justice done toward them. Become as committed to racial justice here as you are committed to racial justice in South Africa.”

During the 1989 spearing season, the Anishinabe received phenomenal support from other Indians in Wisconsin and around the continent. The five other Indian nationalities in the state found themselves taking racist flack—including bomb threats—for a treaty they never signed. The American Indian Movement sent out a national alert, seeing the Wisconsin situation as a harbinger for the rest of Indian Country. They drew 1,000 supporters to one lake.

The Indians’ restraint was evident in the fact that during the two-week season over 200 protesters were arrested, yet not a single treaty supporter was arrested for striking back, and fishing was not stopped on any lake. The drama led state reporters to choose treaty rights as the biggest state news story of the decade.

The pro-treaty movement has proposed a policy of co-management of natural resources in the ceded territories, dividing responsibility between the state and the tribes. Co-management places environmental protection as its primary goal, and has been successfully instituted in Washington state, once also rocked by anti-Indian violence. The state Department of Natural Resources has opposed co-management as strongly as it has opposed treaty rights. The state’s powerful paper arid timber industries, fearing the consequences of co-management, have taken an anti-treaty stance.

To gather support for protection of the Anishinabe spearers, and fora lasting solution to the treaty crisis, the Midwest Treaty Network has designated April 6-7 as the International Days of Support for the Indians of Wisconsin. Groups interested in support for Native Peoples, human rights, and the environment were asked to peacefully picket federal or Wisconsin offices, asking for effective security of Wisconsin lakes, the upholding of Anishinabe treaty rights, and protection of Northern Wisconsin resources.

Rallies took place at U.S. embassies in Vienna (where over 100 people participated), London and Oslo, and at U.S. consulates in Munich, Montreal and Toronto. Rallies in the United States took place in Chicago and Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

While President Bush uses the protection of ‘treaty rights” to justify the U.S. invasion of Panama, he remains silent on the infringement of treaty rights in North America. While he celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall, he remains silent about the walls that divide white communities from communities of Indians and other peoples of color.

Yet despite the constant legal, economic and physical pressure on the Anishinabe, they have not given in. In fact, the treaty crisis has led to strengthening of Indian cultures in Wisconsin, and a renewed interest on the part of many non-Indians in protecting these cultures and the land on which they are based. Out of one of the ugliest eras in the state’s history has come some hope for the future.

Please write Governor Tommy Thompson, State Capitol, Madison, WI 53702, and send a copy of your letter to the Midwest Treaty Network, 731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703. For information, call 715-779-3687, 779-5071, 588-3560 or 588-3614.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

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