Tribal spearfishers continue practice for food sovereignty, culture despite claims of harassment in northern Wisconsin – Green Bay Press Gazette

tribal-spearfishers-continue-practice-for-food-sovereignty,-culture-despite-claims-of-harassment-in-northern-wisconsin-–-green-bay-press-gazette

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ARBOR VITAE - William Poupart pulled into a boat landing in Vilas County not long after sunset on a cold Friday this April, not knowing for certain if this would be one of the quiet nights free from harassment by locals.He said there are no issues about 90% of the time, but the idea that there could be trouble is always in the back of his mind, as it is for about 500 other tribal spearfishers in the Northwoods.Poupart, 30, is a citizen of the Lac du Flambeau Nation in Wisconsin, which is one of six bands of Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe, people in the state who are protected by law to practice off-reservation fishing and hunting every year.Poupart said past harassment he experienced while exercising these rights included people yelling racial slurs at him and his children or having a vehicle aggressively tail them while driving, honking their horn and flashing their lights.In a way, Poupart said he was glad his children were with him because experiencing that kind of harassment for exercising their rights has become kind of a right of passage for Anishinaabe people. It also gives him the opportunity to talk to them about the recent history and struggles of their people.Despite these troubles, Poupart continues to hunt and spearfish off reservation, not only to feed his family, but to continue his culture and tribe’s sovereignty as an act of defiance in support of civil rights.“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” he said. “To me, this is our culture, our people’s church.”After being selected through a lottery system for the right to fish that night, Poupart and his father, Duane Poupart, arrived at Carrol Lake, managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.Although chilly, the night is clear and lit by stars, and the loon’s wail sounds like a wolf’s howl in the distance.The Pouparts check in with creel clerk Mike Mackenzie before backing up their pickup truck with a boat in tow into the water.Four pre-determined permits to spearfish on Carrol Lake were available to certain tribal citizens that night to harvest a maximum of 49 fish of varying species.Before getting on the boat, as a ceremonial custom, Poupart spreads asemaa, or tobacco, on the shore to offer thanks or ask for help from Creator.The name of Poupart’s reservation, Lac du Flambeau, means lake of torches in French and depicts how the Anishinaabe had always fished for their food in the springtime before contact with Europeans.Walleye and other fish move to the shallow waters to spawn at night in the spring. When the ancestors of today’s Anishinaabe discovered this, they started using torches from canoes at night to spot and find the fish.Duane Poupart boats throughout the 330-acre lake, maneuvering around small islands, while William Poupart carefully scans the water for the opportunity to ensnare, not necessarily impale, the prized walleye and musky fish with his forked spear.After about an hour-and-a-half on the water, the Pouparts return to shore a little cold and tired. They bring in their catch to be carefully examined by Mackenzie.Mackenzie counts each fish, notes its species and records its gender, if known, with the help of assistant Sherri Buller.Mackenzie also measures each fish. Each permit allows for two “big” fish longer than 20 inches. If the spearer violates the allowable catch, the clerk or game warden seizes the fish and the spearer faces a fine in tribal court.Although the Pouparts were allowed to catch 49 fish, they only caught nine that night, including six walleye, two northern pike and one musky.“This is way below average,” William Poupart said.Mackenzie said the early spring warm-up, followed by a refreezing, likely played a role in how many were able to be caught this season.Spearfishing is winding down and tribal spearfishers are doing “clean-up” runs, returning to lakes they had been before to try to meet their allowable quotas.They almost never meet their quotas.But Poupart said he often has the chance to bring his children with him on the lakes to teach them about their culture.He said they could just buy fish at a grocery store, but nothing beats the experience of practicing who they are.And if packaged in a freezer properly, Poupart said he still catches enough fish to last a year until the next spearfishing season to regularly feed his family and have some left over to feed others in his community.Poupart was thankful there were no harassment troubles on the lake that night.Treaty rightsThe rights for Anishinaabe to hunt and fish off-reservation in what is known as the Ceded Territory, which includes much of the Wisconsin Northwoods, are guaranteed by U.S. and tribal law through early to mid-19th century treaties in exchange for the government taking Ojibwe land.Wisconsin state government had ignored or eventually forgotten about these treaty rights after statehood, but Anishinaabe people would still sometimes exercise their rights clandestinely to feed their families and risk citation or arrest from state game wardens.Then, in 1974, brothers Fred and Mike Tribble, who are Lac Courtes Oreilles tribal citizens in Wisconsin, alerted the DNR that they intended to fish off-reservation and were charged.The brothers challenged the citations in federal court and won against the state in a 1983 ruling known as the Voight Decision. Judges in following years repeatedly upheld the Anishinaabe people’s right to fish and hunt off-reservation in subsequent rulings and struck down state appeals.HarassmentScores of Anishinaabe then started coming to the boat landings to exercise their civil rights weeks before the non-tribal fishing season starting, to the ire of locals.Hundreds and thousands of anti-treaty protesters also started going to the boat landings in the late 1980s, complaining that Anishinaabe people were harming the fish populations and hurting tourism in the region.Confrontations by many soon escalated, and rock-throwing, gunshots, death threats, and racial and sexual taunts soon became common occurrences, according to multiple reports.A Lac du Flambeau spearfishing organizer, Tom Maulson, reportedly had a bounty of $30,000 on his head.“I was the most hated man in Wisconsin,” Maulson said.Maulson has since made peace with some of the anti-treaty protest organizers.The Anishinaabe tribal nations stood firm at the time in exercising their rights, especially after a state offer of $42 million to Lac du Flambeau to give up treaty rights was rejected by tribal voters.After a federal report found that tribal spearfishing was not harming fish populations and that it was the violent protests, not spearfishing, that was starting to harm tourism, incidents at the boat landings started to dwindle.Some incidents in the early 1990s at the boat landings became comical. In one incident, a few dozen protestors chanted “equal rights” and several Anishinaabe teen girls chanted back “eat wild rice,” according to a book about the saga, “Walleye Warriors,” by Rick Whaley and Walt Bresette.Wild rice harvesting and consuming is a staple of Anishinaabe culture.Harassment todayThis year, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission reported a harassment incident in Anishinaabe Ceded Territory in Minnesota in which police responded and are investigating.“Hostile and violent acts of aggression, including rock-throwing, racial slurs and threats of physical violence occur during tribal spearfishing every year,” GLIFWC said in a statement.Tribal officials and citizens say most harassment incidents go unreported.Last year, a publicized report of tribal spearfisher harassment involved a shooting incident on Little St. Germain Lake in Vilas County, which is one of the northernmost counties in the state and borders Michigan's Upper Peninsula.Greg (Biskakone) Johnson, 45, a Lac du Flambeau tribal citizen and brother of the tribe’s chairman, was spearfishing on the lake last spring with three other adults when gunfire rang out from the shore about 20 yards away.James Kelsey, 62, pleaded no contest to using a gun while intoxicated and served no jail time, but was instead ordered by a Vilas County judge to pay a $343.50 fine earlier this year, to the ire and frustration of tribal citizens and their supporters.Vilas County District Attorney Martha Milanowski said hate crime and use of a dangerous weapon charge modifiers were dropped because Kelsey pleaded no contest to possessing a firearm while intoxicated and interfering with tribal fishing rights, which is a DNR ordinance violation.That helped prompt state officials to urge everyone this year to respect the treaty rights as the spearfishing started.“These (spearfishing) practices not only provide sustenance for their community, but play a role in stewarding the land and are deeply rooted in their cultural beliefs,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a video statement. “Please be respectful of Ojibwe harvesters and don’t infringe on their guaranteed right.”Dylan Jennings, spokesperson for GLIFWC, said he had not heard of any reported harassment incidents in Wisconsin as the season was winding down this year.Tribal land stewardshipDespite official reports to the contrary, many local residents still believe tribal spearfishing harms fish populations and/or damages the tourism industry.“I think there are way too many misconceptions that exist about the process and about treaty rights in general,” Jennings said. “There are definitely people that will never be convinced, but we do our best to try and work with anyone that’s willing to learn.”One St. Germain resident, who did want his name published, said he doesn’t believe tribal spearfishing harms tourism. The spearfishing season is over before the main tourism season starts in the region and the lakes open for non-tribal fishing in May.“I do think it harms the fish population,” he said. “I don’t think it’s well regulated.”Tom Christensen, St. Germain chairman and co-owner of St. Germain Sport Marine, said he thinks the amount of fish harvested by tribal spearfishers is “horrendous.”“It certainly can’t help our tourism season up here,” he said. “The tribe has a beautiful casino just west of here. … I don’t know what they do with all of them (fish).”Every boat landing is manned by a government representative who carefully records every fish harvested during tribal spearfishing season, but not during non-tribal season.“The tribal spearing is regulated more than anything I’ve been involved with,” said Mackenzie, who has worked for about 20 years with DNR and 10 years with GLIFWC.The DNR sets safe harvest amounts for each lake so there is less than a 1-in-40 chance that more than 35% of the adult walleye population will be harvested by tribal and recreational fishermen combined.“Some people say an extra harvest is given to tribal members, which is not true,” said Todd Ambs, assistant deputy secretary of the DNR, adding that there about 500 tribal spearers compared with about 2 million licensed anglers in the state. “Other (non-tribal) anglers have harvested substantially more.”Since 1989, the total tribal harvest of walleye in the Ceded Territory averaged about 28,000 per year, according to a joint tribal, state and federal report.In 2018, the non-tribal harvest of walleye was 181,000, according to the report.Many of the tribes also run fish hatcheries on the reservations, including Lac du Flambeau.These hatcheries produced more than 15 million walleye eggs in 2018, of which more than 121,000 reached to extended growth fingerlings and were released into Northwoods lakes.Tribal officials reported that these hatcheries help replenish declining fish populations that may be caused by warming waters, shoreline development and invasive species.RELATED: Tribal, Wisconsin officials urging caution, solidarity against harassment of spearfishersRELATED: Shailene Woodley is known as a film star and Aaron Rodgers' fiancee. To Indigenous groups, she's also an environmental ally.Treaty rights also helped solidify Anishinaabe nations as official stewards of the land and lakes.That’s mostly because tribal officials have a seat at the table of any negotiations regarding mineral extraction, installation of oil pipelines or anything else that could harm the local ecology.Michael Isham Jr., executive director of GLIFWC, said many of the former critics of treaty rights have now become allies as a result, especially many of the landowners.“Landowners come to us now for help to save the natural resources,” he said. “It’s not just about walleye.”Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.
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