BEMIDJI -- The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday about a four-year-old case focused on Native fishing rights.
Although the parties in the case are not directly related to Beltrami County, the outcome could have ramifications for the broader Native community as it pertains to the understanding of treaties and the rights of tribal nations.
Three judges comprised the appeals court, including Carol Hooten, Roger Klaphake and Renee Worke. The judges didn’t issue any rulings during Thursday’s hearing.
The case began in 2015 when James Northrup was charged with illegal fishing in Gull Lake, located in Crow Wing County, just northwest of Brainerd. Although Northrup wasn’t the only one charged that day, his case was the only one to move forward. He has since appealed the charge, which was the focus of Thursday’s hearing.
In a room full of supporters, attorneys from Crow Wing County and the 1855 Tribal Authority argued the significance of a handful of treaties and court cases and debated their relevance to the current case involving Northrup.
Tribal authorities say one of their treaty-given rights is in regard to off-reservation fishing and rice gathering. Essentially, they say the treaties indicate that tribal nations have the right to fish waters that were ceded to the government, meaning waters that are not located on the reservations.
That also means that tribal fishing, in some regard, wouldn’t be subject to state laws that regulate when and how anglers can fish. When Northrup went fishing that day in 2015, he used a gillnet, which wasn’t permitted under state law.
During Thursday’s hearing, the three judges tried to clarify which of the 40-plus treaties relating to the Ojibwe people were relevant to the issue at hand. Tribal attorney Joe Plumer, though, said the treaties have to be considered as the Native Americans would have interpreted them at the time they were written. Plumer said the tribes would have considered the treaties together rather than any one of them individually.
Crow Wing County Attorney Donald Ryan focused on the issue of tribal membership. He said the issue was not whether the Native tribes had certain fishing rights. Rather, he said that in order to exercise tribal rights, a person has to be enrolled in a band that was a signatory to the original treaty that speaks to that issue. He argued that Northrup wasn’t enrolled in the right band to take advantage of the treaty rights that he did when he fished on Gull Lake.
While he spoke definitively on the issue, Ryan clarified in front of the judges that he is not an expert on tribal treaty law.
Tribal attorney Frank Bibeau indicated that enrollment in any specific band is essentially irrelevant to the Ojibwe’s fishing rights since the various bands are all members of the same people. He said all the lands the Ojibwe ceded were held in common.
The 2015 case involving Northrup isn’t the only one that has focused on the fishing rights of Native Americans.
A group of Native activists held a similar demonstration in Bemidji in 2018. Native fishers also held an even earlier fishing demonstration in Bemidji in 2010. The Beltrami County Attorney’s Office did not press charges in 2010. So far, it has not pressed charges in the 2018 case either.