By Brett Larson, March 2, 2015
The Mille Lacs Band will recognize Treaty Day on Friday, March 20, with a Treaty Rights Celebration at Grand Casino Mille Lacs. The event, hosted by the Mille Lacs Department of Natural Resources, begins at noon with an invocation and includes lunch at 12:30 p.m., as well as vendor booths, arts and crafts booths, door prizes, and games for kids and adults.
Attendees will have a chance to win a ricing package, including rice knockers and a canoe, and a spring harvest package, including nets, buoys and a canoe.
The Band holiday marks the day in 1999 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Band members retained rights to hunt, fish and gather in areas ceded to the U.S. in the Treaty of 1837.
The decision in Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians came nearly a decade after the Band first filed suit against the State of Minnesota for violating those rights. For decades, the state enforced conservation laws against Mille Lacs Band members who were exercising their rights.
In 1993, the Minnesota Legislature failed to act on a negotiated settlement that would have given the Band 36,000 pounds of walleye or 7 percent of the total harvest, plus $10 million, 15,000 acres of state land, and other concessions.
The failure of the settlement sent the issue to the federal courts. In the meantime the U.S. joined the case on behalf of the Mille Lacs Band. Eight counties and five landowners intervened on the side of the state of Minnesota.
Federal courts ruled in favor of the Band in 1994. Six Wisconsin bands intervened on the side of the Mille Lacs Band in 1995, and in 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the previous verdict.
The state appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, who heard arguments on December 2, 1998.
On Dec. 2, according to the Mille Lacs Messenger, a group of Band members gathered in front of the Supreme Court building for a drum ceremony that continued until 9 a.m., when observers filed into the courtroom.
Afterwards, representatives of the counties and the landowners used the terms “guardedly optimistic,” since the justices’ questions had seemed more aggressive toward the attorneys of the Bands and the U.S. Frank Courteau, who weeks earlier had been elected Mille Lacs County Commissioner, said, “I think they’ll reverse it.” Howard Hanson, another leader in the anti-treaty movement, said, “We’re right, and right will prevail.”
Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Marge Anderson was also positive. She said, “I think justice will prevail. Justice under the law… I’m still very optimistic.”
Marge’s wish came true on March 24, 1999, when the decision came down that the Bands had won, and the highest court had declared that the words of Article 5 of the Treaty of 1837 retained the status of law: “The privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice, upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded, is guarantied to the Indians, during the pleasure of the President of the United States.”
That last clause, “during the pleasure of the President,” was one of the key subjects of the court case, because President Zachary Taylor, in 1850, had attempted to rescind the rights. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the executive order was invalid because Congress or the Constitution did not give the President the power to issue such an order.
When the news of the verdict came out, the Band held a news conference in District I. “Today, the United States has kept a promise,” Marge said, “a promise that agreements are meant to be honored, not broken.”
Mille Lacs Band Secretary/Treasurer Herb Weyaus said, “Today my sadness is gone. As a sovereign nation, we accept the responsibility that comes with the Supreme Court’s decision. We have preserved these resources for centuries because they are central to our culture, and we are ready to work with our Band members and our neighbors to protect the natural environment.”
Some non-Indian neighbors agreed to make the best of the situation and move on. Resort owner Terry McQuoid said, “We’re looking forward to getting back to business as usual.” Tourism Council director Judy Cain said, “We must put the past in the past. It’s now over. We’re going to move on. The band is willing and so are we.”
Messenger editor Jim Baden said, “It’s time to let it go. … It’s time to move on so that the profound activities that really lay at the heart of life in Mille Lacs won’t become casualties of this war.”
Others were not so positive. Sen. Dan Stevens said, “It was like a punch in the stomach.” Rep. Sondra Erickson said she was “in mourning.” She said the system allowing tribal sovereignty was “almost like apartheid.”
The case resulted in co-management of hunting, fishing and gathering on ceded territories by the state and the tribes, which are represented by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.
To this day, Band members harvest fish, game and wild rice under tribal regulations, and the tribes work with the state DNR to protect natural resources in the territories ceded in the Treaty of 1837.