A lot on the Line – Fishing Openers and Indian Sovereignty Rights

May 18, 2010

This weekend was the Walleye and Pike season opener in Minnesota.  For the fishers out there, it was a glorious weekend to be out on the pristine waters of L’Etoile du Nord  

This season’s opener, however, may have more on the line than a few fish.  Several members of the Leech Lake Chippewa band began fishing 24 hours before the scheduled opener.  Their early fishing was intended as an act of civil disobedience, meant to assert rights preserved for the Chippewa in an 1855 treaty between the Chippewa and the United States.  Some Chippewa members argue the treaty permits them access to state lakes for hunting and fishing.

Eventually, the fishing nets set out early by the Chippewa members were cut and removed from the water by state officials.  Should the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issue citations to the early fishers?  State and federal courts may be called upon to interpret and apply a treaty that is older than the state of Minnesota itself. 

A legal dispute of this sort would not be the first instance of Minnesota finding itself in court against the Chippewa.  One case even went to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in the 1999 decision of Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians (119 SCT 1187).

Fortunately, a large amount of legal information is available to assist in navigating Tribal Law, Native American treaties and the court decisions that interpret how those treaties are to be applied.

Through the Westlaw Directory, you can access our collection of Tribal Materials.  Here you will find opinions issued by a variety of tribal courts (Cherokee, Navajo, Hopi, etc.).  You can also access the statutes, codes and governing documents for many of these same nations. 

Treaties between various Native American nations and the United States can be found in Federal Native American Treaties (FNAM-TREATIES).  Coverage of these treaties dates from 1797.

Federal court cases discussing Native American legal issues can be found in Federal Native American Law – Cases (FNAM-CS).  Finally, West Topical Highlights – Native American Law (WTH-NAM) will take you directly to reports that briefly summarize the most recent developments in Native American Law.

Additional resources, of course, exist.  Hopefully though, the above mentioned materials will provide you with a sufficient starting point should you find yourself researching similar topics.  And as always, please don’t hesitate to call the Reference Attorneys for additional assistance!