Who owns the fish? How tribal rights could save the Great Lakes.
In Leelanau County in Northern Michigan, a small American Indian tribe has struggled for generations to survive economic and social hardships. The tribe has always been deeply connected to the lakes economically and culturally. The latest threat to that connection is environmental degradation, particularly invasive species. But the tribes are forming unexpected alliances with old enemies to fight the threat.
When you first arrive in the Leelanau Peninsula, you think: this is heaven in the Midwest. Lake Michigan stretches out everywhere you look, blue as the Caribbean. It is a place full of second homes and tourists. But there is one spot that is different from the rest.
Arthur Duhamel Marina sound fade up
Peshawbestown is the reservation for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, a group that has lived in this area longer than anyone. It doesn’t have any t-shirt shops or beach-front mansions. Instead, there are government offices, a casino, and a tribal marina. Ed John is a tribal fisherman who docks his boat here.
JOHN: I can weld, and other things. But I enjoy fishing cause I am my own boss. I am not rich, but I don’t want to be rich, it’s working for me.
Tribes have always been dependent on the lakes. We asked Ed how invasive species have been threatening the tribes livelihood.
JOHN: I was just telling my buddy, we got these reporters down here, asking about Invasive species. We know a thing or two about invasive species. First we had the Vikings and all these other countries taking, actually invading our space.
Ed’s wife fishes, and so does her cousin, Bill.
FOWLER: My name is Bill Fowler, I am a tribal commercial fisherman.
His nickname is bear
FOWLER: because I’m as big as a bear and I work like a bear
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Bill fishes with Jason Sams who helps haul in the nets. Also along for the ride is Bill’s dauschund puppy, Beauford.
SAMS: He eats the face of the fishes. Faces ain’t worth any money anyway. He’s excited ‘Cause he knows there will be fish soon.
It takes about an hour to reach the first fishing net.
FOWLER: Here fishy, fishy, come here fishies.
Lake Trout flop around on the dock, bleeding from the gills.
Ice keeps them fresh till they get to shore, where Bill sells his catch under the name 1836 fishing company, in honor of the treaty of 1836.
FOWLER: I named it that because the treaty is important to us to reserve our rights.
You see, back in 1836 the tribes gave away a huge chunk of land – 1/3 of the state of Michigan. In return they kept the right to hunt and fish. But much later, in the 1960s, the state of Michigan started heavily regulating commercial fishermen, including tribes, limiting where and how they fished.
John Bailey was a tribal leader at the time and says the regulations hurt the tribes.
BAILEY: Economically it would destroy us. And it would destroy us as Indian people because it’s something that has been passed down generation to generation.
Inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the south, tribes began using non-violent civil disobedience to protest the regulations. They ignored state fishing restrictions and said to the authorities, come arrest me.
According to John Bailey, a lot of whites didn’t react well.
BAILEY: One of the groups actually took pictures of Indian fisherman and flooded the state with wanted posters: spear an Indian Save a Trout. We had guns pulled on us. We had women verbally and physically assaulted
White commercial and sports fisherman thought traditional nets used by the tribes would lead to overfishing, destroying the fishing economy.
The fight came to a head in 1979, when the tribes went to court. They pulled out that treaty from 1836, the one Fowler named his boat after. And because of that they won. The courts said: these tribes, they own a part of that lake and the water and the fish in it too. That’s why tribal fisherman like Bill Fowler can still fish today.
FOWLER: A lot of times people don’t realize that treaty right exist, they think we are out on the plains living in teepees and we are here today and living in a modern way just like everybody else, but we still have our treaty rights.
That treaty could prove to play a deciding role in the current legal battle to protect the lakes against invasive species. And it’s a factor uniting the same groups that were at odds over fishing rights in the seventies.
At the end of the day, Bill pulls his boat into the Fishtown marina and sells his fish to Carlsons Fish Shop, owned by a white family that has been in the fishing business for 6 generations.
Sounds of Bill handing off the fish
Bill hands over boxes of full of fish that the Carlson’s will smoke and sell in their shop.
This is a remarkable scene. Only thirty years ago the Carlson’s were on the opposite side of the fight from the tribes. And now here they are, rolling away all of Bill’s fish to sell to tourists.
Cooperation like this between white and native fishermen, is common now. There are a lot of complicated reasons for that. But the one everyone told us over and over again is this: we have a common enemy, fighting environmental destruction. Jack Nolan is the former president of the Grand Traverse Area Sports fishermen.
NOLAN: The hard feelings have passed and now we are working on what is needed today. The Asian Carp, all the other invasive species. We don’t have time for bickering, we need to take care of our resource.
Protecting the lakes from the voracious Asian Carp is an urgent concern for more than just sports fisherman. Most Great Lakes states are involved in a Federal lawsuit. They are trying to get the Army Corps of engineers to shut down locks leading into the Great Lakes and stop the carp. But so far the suit’s stalled in court and many scientists say carp will get in the lakes before all that’s resolved.
But this is where there is a twist. The tribal rights that were solidified in the 1979 court case established that the tribes owned part of the lake, and others couldn’t mess up their ability to fish in it. That might mean the tribes could do something no one else can do can do -- force the Army Corps to close the locks to keep out the Asian Carp.
FLETCHER: It maybe that the treaty rights are the only thing that protects us, I don’t know.
Matthew Fletcher is a law professor at Michigan Sate University. He says litigating on behalf of the environment, is really hard in our court system, because the environment doesn’t have rights.
But treaties, like the one signed with the tribes, are considered “the supreme law of the land.” Matthew Fletcher, a member of the Ottawa and Chippewa band of Indians, says tribes may be willing to use those treaties on behalf of the lakes, because of what they have to loose.
FLETCHER: If the GL tanks and its all polluted or declined to the point where it’s useless, Michigan will still be here. But there are 6 or 8 tribes that will disappear. So much of the culture, the tradition, and the economies, even the language is tied to what the lakes look like. If that goes away, the tribes have lost, in terms of basically being extinct.
The tribes will be presenting testimony in an upcoming injunction hearing, it’s the latest development in the effort to get the locks closed immediately.
No one is sure how the treaty rights will shake out in court. But if they do hold up, it could open all kinds of doors for using tribal rights to fight environmental battles, from privatization of water, to nuclear power plants on the shore. And tribes, once at odds with all of the other fishermen, may prove they have a trump card that could protect the lakes for everyone.