Minn. official called treaty rights 'apartheid'
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TUESDAY, MAY 13, 2003

The head of Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources told an anti-Indian group last month that tribal hunting and fishing rights are based on a system of "apartheid."

DNR commissioner Gene Merriam spoke at an April 27 fund-raiser for Proper Economic Resource Management (PERM), a group opposed to treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. "I think that any system of apartheid based upon race is inherently misdirected," he was quoted as saying in the May 2 issue of the Outdoor News, a weekly publication.

Although Merriam said he wasn't making official state policy, eight tribal leaders have asked for his resignation. In a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), they called the remarks "outrageous."

"Comparing the legal exercise of treaty rights with one of history's most brutal and racist systems of government is outrageous and should be condemned by all Minnesotans," the tribes wrote.

But Pawlenty, in a subsequent statement, said he wouldn't fire Merriam. And Merriam, who was appointed by Pawlenty in January, offered an apology to the tribes. "I fully respect and recognize the importance of their treaty rights," he said in a separate statement.

As a state senator, Merriam opposed a proposed treaty rights settlement with the tribes. As DNR commissioner, he is responsible for overseeing the state's recognition of those rights.

In a April 30 article published in The Mille Lacs Messenger, Merriam said PERM raised "good questions" about way his department is carrying out the settlement. According to the article, he is seeking legal guidance from the state attorney general.

"The issues aren't always clear and there's no guarantee that with your input we'll make good public policy decisions," he was quoted as saying.

Merriam also said he would be open to ending commercial fishing by tribal members.

"It merits approaching the tribes that wish to do this and exploring alternatives," he told the group, the article reported. "What will it take the state to offer to get them not to do that? It's worth exploring."

Prior to the PERM fund-raiser, Merriam met with a lawyer for the group. He also said he met recently with Curt Kalk, the natural resources commissioner for the Mille Lacs Ojibwe Band.

Treaty rights in the Midwest have long been a sore point, occasionally leading to violence. But anti-tribal sentiments seemed to have abated after the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision issued March 1999, upheld the off-reservation treaty rights of the eight Ojibwe tribes.

Before the decision was reached, the state proposed a settlement with the Ojibwe tribes but it was defeated in the Legislature. At the time, PERM praised Merriam for voting against it.

Several anti-Indian groups, including PERM and the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), have close ties to organizations like the United Citizens for Equal Rights (UCE), which has recently made inroads in upstate New York, and United Property Owners of Washington (UPOW). The latter group was started by former U.S. congressman Jack Metcalf (R), a vocal opponent of treaty rights.

More on Merriam's PERM Appearance:
DNR head speaks at PERM event (The Mille Lacs Messenger 4/30)

Supreme Court Decision Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians:
Syllabus | Opinion | Dissent [Rehnquist] | Dissent [Thomas]

Relevant Links:
Proper Economic Resource Management -
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources -
Mille Lacs Ojibwe -