Cass Lake on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. Photo from Minnesota Fishing Trips
Environment | Law

Ojibwe fishermen in Minnesota win decision in treaty rights case

Ojibwe fishermen enjoy the right to catch and sell fish from treaty-protected waters and lakes in Minnesota, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today.

Four fishermen -- three from the Leech Lake Band and one from the White Earth Band -- were accused of taking fish from the Leech Lake Reservation. A federal judge dismissed the indictment, ruling that the 1837 Chippewa Treaty protected their activities.

The federal government appealed. But in a unanimous decision, the 8th Circuit agreed with the fishermen.

"The wording of the 1837 treaty is broad, guaranteeing a 'privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice, upon the lands, the rivers, and the lakes included in the territory ceded,'" Judge Diana E. Murphy wrote for the court. "The historical importance of these activities in Chippewa life and the emphasis of the Chippewa chiefs on usufructuary rights during their negotiations with the United States indicate that the Indians believed they were reserving unrestricted rights to hunt, fish, and gather throughout a large territory."

"The history suggests that the Chippewa Indians' exercise of their usufructuary rights included selling what they hunted, fished, or gathered in order to make a modest living," Murphy continued.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: U.S. v. Brown

The men had been charged under the Lacey Act, which makes it unlawful to sell fish in violation of "any Indian tribal law." in this case, the federal government said the men violated the Leech Lake Conservation Code.

The 8th Circuit, however, said tribal regulation of fishing rights does not make the defendants' activities illegal under federal law.

"Tribal fishing laws enforceable in tribal court do not change the scope of treaty protections which tribal members may assert as a defense to prosecution by the United States," Murphy wrote.

Oral arguments were held on October 9, 2014, and can be found on the Indianz.Com SoundCloud. Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, US v. Brown.

8th Circuit Decision:
US v. Brown (February 10, 2015)

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