Editor’s note: I wrote this in the spring of 2015, a year or so after leaving the Mille Lacs Messenger and a few months after starting work as a contract writer for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Everyone who knows me will attest that my opinions never changed, whether I was working for the white-owned Messenger or as a contractor for the Band. I didn’t publish it back then because I was concerned that “shooting my mouth off” might hurt the tribe in some way, but my employers have never tried to limit my expression — unlike the readers of the Messenger, who relentlessly attacked me for many years when I expressed anything they didn’t agree with. Anyway, some of this is outdated, but the general facts remain true, as Mille Lacs County continues to fight the Band on every front, in spite of the fact that the tribe’s positions do no harm to any non-Indians in the region, and the Band is the economic engine for the entire East Central Minnesota region. The former Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group has been changed to the Mille Lacs Fishery Advisory Committee, thanks to a knee-jerk reaction by Gov. Mark Dayton to the mid-season shutdown of the walleye fishery in the summer of 2015, but everything else remains the same.
Sixteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court recognized Indians’ right to harvest fish under their own laws, many people at Mille Lacs Lake are still blaming Indians for problems with the lake’s walleye population, and they continue to rant about the situation in hopes that it will change.
In 15 years as a reporter, columnist, and editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger, I refrained from using the term “racism” to describe the willful ignorance and blind rage that are common at Mille Lacs, but I have come to the conclusion that there is no other explanation.
Only racism can explain the endless blaming of Indians for all Mille Lacs’ troubles. Nowhere is the practice more evident than the annual meeting between the DNR and the Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group, a small group of business people and anglers who give advice to the DNR on Mille Lacs fishing regulations. Some members of the group, including Twin Pines Resort owner Bill Eno, took the DNR to court recently, claiming that the agency failed in its duty under the Minnesota Constitution’s Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment. They lost, appealed, and lost again.
At the most recent meeting between the group and the DNR in February, members approved an anti-netting petition that was yet another example of the group’s inability to see past race and face the facts — biological, historical, and legal. The four questions on the poll targeted Indians and netting as the sole cause of biological, social, economic, and even “health and human safety” problems at Mille Lacs.
There was no mention of the angler harvest, the high kill rates due to catch-and-release, or the advancements in technology giving anglers more tools to target fish. There was also no mention of the other potential causes of walleye decline: warming temperatures, invasive species, and food-chain disruptions of unknown origin. There was certainly no mention of the endless rage and bitterness that have done more damage to the local economy than gillnetting ever could.
The only problems that need to be addressed, according to the petition, are the 50/50 state-tribal allocations, the gillnetting of walleyes during spawning season, the conservation problems at Mille Lacs attributed solely to netting, and the social and economic problems at Mille Lacs — again, blamed on the tribal harvest rather than the shrill opposition to treaty rights that’s been poisoning the lake communities for over 20 years, since the Mille Lacs Band first sued the state for recognition of Band members’ right to hunt and fish under the 1837 Treaty.
Not only is gillnetting not the real problem, but it is also perfectly legal under the treaties and the court decisions upholding those treaties. The 50/50 allocation, too, has been recognized as the only fair way to divide resources shared between states and tribes. But that doesn’t stop the Input Group members from stamping their feet every year and crying “It’s not fair!”
The author of the petition, Joe Fellegy, was one of the most vocal opponents of a negotiated settlement between the state and the Mille Lacs Band that the Legislature failed to approve in 1993, and he has been the most prominent spokesman for the dead-enders who can’t move on. It’s hard to see his desperate attempts to re-fight his lost battle as anything but regret over leading his followers over a cliff 20 years ago. The negotiated settlement would have been much better for Fellegy and his friends than the current situation, but you’ll never hear him admit it.
Fellegy’s petition singles out Indians in a way that can’t be explained any other way than racism. It ignores the scientific consensus on Mille Lacs, and it ignores the multiple factors unrelated to the tribal harvest. It singles out Indians and their harvest methods as the only problem at Mille Lacs that needs to be addressed.
There are many factors contributing to the current decline, but the most significant has been the inability of young walleyes to survive to catchable size, which has nothing to do with netting, according to the assessments of some of the best fishery biologists in North America — a so-called “blue ribbon panel” that was brought together to review the DNR’s data and conclusions.
Reasonable people would trust the panel’s report over the anecdotes, memories, and harebrained theories of individual anglers and business people, who are motivated by lust for profit and by anger over the fact that someone else can legally fish with nets, and they can’t. They don’t seem to remember the boom and bust cycles that predate netting, or the good years of fishing and strong populations since legal netting started. They’ve forgotten “the home of the quarter pounder” jokes of the 1980s, and the decline that happened after the million-pound boom year of 1992. Every time a new batch of data comes out, these armchair scientists have a “common sense” theory to explain why everything bad is because of the nets.
Racism is the only reasonable explanation for the willful blindness, the level of vitriol, and the constant whining that have done more damage to the region’s economy than gill-netting every could. Indians are hunting and fishing under their own laws all over the country, and it’s not going to end. The inability of people to face the facts and move on indicates a gut-level and irrational anti-Indian mentality that is damaging, ugly, and out of touch with reality.
As I said, in 15 years of covering the area, I avoided use of the term “racism,” although on occasion I heard comments that could be explained in no other way — the old-fashioned, blatant kind of racism. I always gave most people the benefit of the doubt, believing that they were decent folks at heart.
Few people are dumb enough to say anything blatantly racist, and few people would even admit to themselves that they believe in their own race’s superiority — the dictionary definition of racism. But the racism prevalent at Mille Lacs and around Minnesota and the nation is far more complicated, insidious, unconscious, communal, and harmful than the simple “I’m better than you” sort of racism that poses for the real thing in Hollywood movies — letting most of us as individuals, and our nation as a whole, off the hook.
Many otherwise decent folks exhibit their racism in subtle ways, the Input Group and myself included.
Since leaving the paper a year and a half ago, I’ve reflected on my own contributions to the stereotypes, prejudice, and racism that continue to plague my neighbors and friends at the Mille Lacs Reservation. Maybe it was starting work for the Band last fall that has caused me to think more deeply about it, as I’ve realized what a poor job we did of covering the reservation, in spite of the best intentions. Some of our failures were due to fear, based on stereotypes and unspoken prejudices. Some were due to a lack of effort — a sin of omission.
For example, in attempting to “treat everyone the same” in crime coverage, I made it my policy to cover all felonies committed in the county. However, Indians commit a far greater number of felonies, proportionally, than whites, so the result was that the paper reinforced the stereotype that Indians are irresponsible, criminal, violent, etc. To really tell the story of crime in the county fairly and accurately, I should have continuously told “the rest of the story”: that Indian communities have been devastated by centuries of racism and oppression, and that the results — broken families, substance abuse, diabetes, educational inequities — can be attributed to that racism, which still exists. We certainly published stories on the effect of this “historical trauma” on Indian people and communities, but the stories were too few and too far between.
I believe now that my noble effort to be superficially “fair” was fueled by the kind of institutionalized racism that keeps stereotypes alive, propagates myths, and impedes advancement by minority groups and individuals. I’ve often said that it’s not fair for white people to see racism as over — when they control the vast amount of wealth and live in better neighborhoods with better schools. But I didn’t apply that logic to my own coverage of the Mille Lacs Reservation. The simple math of “treating everyone the same” in the newspaper is not enough to wash one’s hands of the stain of racism.
The racism the country is dealing with today is in the air we breathe, in the laws we’ve created, in the economic realities that never change, and in the concentration of political power in the same white hands. We whites can’t recognize our inherent privilege anymore than we can recognize our role in keeping oppressed groups down.
Take the recent spate of police shootings and other misconduct. I’m certain that few if any of the white officers involved would admit to any feelings of superiority of their race. Their racism is more subtle than that, and it is revealed in the contrasting levels of fear and the out-of-proportion responses to threats. We all know that white men in the same situations would not be killed in cold blood, as so many black men have been. The only explanation is irrational fear that stems from an unconscious feeling that African-Americans are less trustworthy and more prone to violence than whites are.
It was my own racism that created an inability to see and an unwillingness to consistently address the systemic and institutional racism that infected my coverage of issues, as well as the local business and angling communities’ and local governments’ mean-spirited legal attacks against the Mille Lacs Band. I should have called it what it was a long time ago, but my own poor understanding of the insidious nature of racism prevented me from seeing what was in front of me. (I was also bullied so relentlessly for my position in the middle that simple avoidance of conflict played a role as well — another example of racism in the Mille Lacs community: attacking anyone who appears to be “too friendly” to the tribe.)
The troublemakers at Mille Lacs (many of them transplants and summer residents) need to get over this need to blame everything on Indians and this fantasy that somehow ranting about it year in and year out is going to change anything.
The Input Group can’t seem to get over it and move on. They even blame the Indians for negative press related to Mille Lacs, when they should be looking in the mirror.
For those reasons, it is long past time for the Minnesota DNR to stop taking input from the Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group. The Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group has become a menace to the region and the state and the lake, a counterproductive waste of time and money composed of angry people living in the past, and it’s time for the DNR to stop listening to them. It’s insane that our state agency still takes “advice” from profit-motivated and short-sighted people who filed a spurious lawsuit against the DNR and continue to bully the business community into signing mean-spirited and anti-science petitions.
Every year, racist rednecks trot out the same arguments, and no one stands up to them – not the DNR, and certainly not the Input Group. The online trolls who say “Indians should have to use 1837 technology” should be made to realize that the same would apply to them, since there were two parties to the treaty. They should be advised that fishing technology has improved dramatically, and anglers have been hammering the population with catch-and-release. If you’re looking for something to blame, why nets and not that? Gee, I wonder.
Some of us were calling for a one-fish or two-fish limit or a catch-and-release season years before the angling and businesses communities finally gave in, but the DNR paid too much attention to the local business interests to make wise decisions. They approved a harvest slot of smaller fish to keep an outdated four-fish bag limit way past its expiration date — which probably contributed to the problem, since anglers and netters were targeting the same size fish. If you want to blame the DNR for something, blame them for that.
Let’s face it: The Input Group’s singling out of Indians as the cause of all Mille Lacs’ problems can only be explained one way: racism. The DNR should stop doing business with a group that sees only racial causes and racial solutions — in spite of the science and the law, which see neither. The State Legislature should consider a bill to force the DNR to stop wasting time and resources on annual meetings, or Gov. Dayton should use his executive power to demand that DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr prohibit his staff from spending tax dollars listening to the anti-science and anti-Indian opinions of the group. Mille Lacs belongs to the state of Minnesota and the Indian bands of the region, not to a small group of profit-motivated business people and ignorant fishing guides, who waste the DNR’s time with anecdotes and unscientific theories.
It’s time for the people of Mille Lacs and Minnesota to stand up to the bitter bullies and get the Mille Lacs community moving together toward a more positive future.