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Treaty rights lawsuit lands in court: Cass Lake men charged with killing deer out of season, on private land

BEMIDJI -- Two Leech Lake tribe members facing illegal deer hunting charges asked the Beltrami County District Court to dismiss their case Friday, arguing the state has no jurisdiction to charge them over hunting violations.

According to the legal complaint, Tony Lee Morris and Randy Gregg Finn, both of Cass Lake were driving on a rural gravel road a few miles outside the Leech Lake Reservation on Nov. 1, when they saw a small doe. Morris stopped the car and Finn shot the animal out his window.

They followed the wounded deer onto private land, gutted it and dragged the carcass back to the road. When the landowner confronted the two men they drove away, leaving the dead deer behind.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources enforcement officers later located Morris and Finn, and the two men confessed according to the complaint. They were charged for killing a deer out of season, on private land.

Tribal attorney Frank Bibeau argued Friday that the case should be dismissed. He said a treaty signed in 1855 gives tribe members the right to hunt, fish and gather across most of northern Minnesota.

"The state has no jurisdiction when it comes to a tribe member exercising treaty rights," he said.

This case comes as another dispute over 1855 Treaty rights moves forward in Crow Wing County District Court, to the south.

Bibeau also represents four other Ojibwe tribe members who were charged after a treaty rights protest at Hole-in-the-day Lake, south of Nisswa. Those tribe members gathered wild rice without a permit and set gill nets, which is against state law.

Those four tribe members came before a judge last month — with Bibeau arguing for dismissal there as well. It's just the first step in what could be a long court battle to clarify tribal land use rights in northern Minnesota.

Bibeau plans to ask a federal court to step in and mediate a deal between the tribes and the state. He believes a federal judge will force the state to acknowledge treaty rights.

Morris and Finn's case, Bibeau said, won't be used to fight for tribal land use rights, but he said the two men will be protected if the Crow Wing case succeeds.

Both cases will go back to district court later this month.