Walleye War

Jacob Graboski

The police force continuously increased as they attempted to subdue the growing tensions between the protesters and the Indians on the banks of Trout Lake. Thousands of protesters gathered on the Trout Lake boat landing to form a barricade against the Ojibwe Indians. A rally, held by an anti-treaty group “Stop Treaty Abuse, Wisconsin” (STA/W), had brought in many protesters from all over Wisconsin in a unified effort to take over the boat landing and essentially stop the Ojibwe Indians from harvesting walleye. Tom Maulson, an avid Ojibwe hunter and fisherman living on the Lac du Flambeau reservation, recalls that Trout Lake was the most dangerous night in all of the years of spearing (Nesper, Walleye 138). Maulson explains, “They could have killed us all, and they was [sic] saying that that is what they wanted to do” (139). Rocks were thrown as racial epithets flew from the mouths of the angry crowds who were barely held back by mere snow fences and the brute force of police officers. The Ojibwe fisherman, fearing their lives, armed themselves with anything they could find and waited for the anger to subside. That Friday night, 109 protesters were arrested as the police forced the mobs back. Fourteen Flambeau spearers took 175 walleyes and 27 muskies, but the war was just beginning (Nesper, Walleye 139).

The night at Trout Lake was a product of years of tensions and political debates between the Ojibwe tribe of Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and non-Indians of Wisconsin. Patty Loew, professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains the origins of the political debate: “The contemporary struggles had their roots in four treaties signed in 1836, 1837, 1842, and 1854 in which the Ojibwe ceded millions of acres in the Great Lakes region” (162). Loew locates the tensions between non-Indian and Ojibwe tribe members in treaties signed nearly 200 years ago. “Ojibwe Treaty Rights: 15 Years Later”, an article published by the Wisconsin Historical Society further affirms Leow’s statement,

In 1837 and 1842, the Ojibwe had signed treaties forfeiting their land titles while retaining their right to hunt and fish on that ceded territory — a guarantee known as “reserved rights.” Another treaty, signed in 1854, created reservations for the Ojibwe but did not cancel the rights guaranteed in earlier treaties. Despite this protection, the state consistently denied the Ojibwe these lawfully protected reserved rights. (“Ojibwe Treaty Rights: 15 Years Later”)

Simply stated, the Ojibwe bands of Wisconsin were hunting and spearing in the lands they ceded to the United States of America and the non-Indians believed they had no rights to those lands. Many elements contributed to the controversy of whether or not Ojibwe bands had different rights for hunting and fishing over non-Indians, and these elements were explored greatly in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Wisconsin Indian reservations are most commonly perceived as low-income areas. Larry Nesper, an ethnographer who studied the Ojibwe Tribe, found that “over fourteen hundred [Ojibwe] band members live on the reservation, 41 percent of them below the poverty line” (Walleye 14). This finding supports the Ojibwe claim that they rely on spearfishing to survive on the low-income reservations. Although the non-Indians of Wisconsin recognize the poverty of the Ojibwe, many feel the fish more than make up for their lack of income. On April 24th, 1986, 54 spearers took 1,192 walleye (Nesper, Walleye 83). The ability to sell these fish for money created an unequal economic advantage for Ojibwe tribe members over the non-Indian sports fisherman because the Ojibwe could take whatever they needed for sustenance and sell the rest for surplus. Also, the Ojibwe bands had unlimited rights to walleye when compared to sports fisherman who had bag limits. Dennis Anderson, author in The Minnesota Star Tribune, clarifies the bag limit dilemma asserting that “[i]n recent years, the six Wisconsin Ojibwe bands have set harvest quotas between 41,000 and 45,000 walleye on 200 to 230 lakes. Bag limits for sport anglers are then adjusted down from the state limit of five walleye to three or two.” In essence, the Ojibwe control the amount of fish that sports fishermen are able to catch each season.

Some non-Indians even considered the Ojibwe spear fishing actions a form of rape. Even the Lac Du Flambeau Department of Natural Resources (DNR) used the word “rape” to describe the Ojibwes’ taking of vulnerable spawning females. However, Nesper critiques the DNR statement by showing that in 1990, 84.6 percent of the walleye speared during spawning were males (Walleye 104). Regardless of the gender of the fish, most non-Indian protesters felt that the spawning fish should be respected simply because mating is a biological instinct. Tom Hook, a non-Indian who took part in a boat landing protest on Big Arbor Vitae Lake in 1990 states, “If the fish are spawning and should be left alone, they should be left alone by everyone” (qtd. in Loew 170). The Ojibwe, however, had legal rights to these fish and they would spear as many as they desired.

The northern third of Wisconsin had an economic boom in the tourist industry in the 1900s. The north woods were the perfect getaway to a land of trees and lakes filled with bountiful trophy fish. These fish bring many jobs to the people of the Lac du Flambeau area through fish hatcheries, taverns, resorts, and much more. Non-Indians prided themselves on tourism and believed that spearfishing and tourism simply could not coexist. Technically, the Ojibwe tribe is allotted 100 percent of “safe harvest.” The term “safe harvest” represents the amount of fish that can be taken before the population of fish is in danger. In 1996, The Minnesota Star Tribune announced, “The Wisconsin Ojibwe bands…intend to spear all of the safe allowable walleye harvest” (Anderson). More likely than not, the Ojibwe bands were attempting to threaten the state of Wisconsin in order to reduce protester violence and to demonstrate their rights to fishing and hunting to the non-Indians. DNR Secretary George Meyer boldly responded to this threat: “This [threat] is absolutely unacceptable. Under both the spirit and the letter of the federal court decision, the resource was to be shared.” Meyer is referring to the Voight decision in the Wisconsin Supreme Court which demanded that the Ojibwe treaties be followed by state officials and that the tribes should work to negotiate a proper harvesting of resources. Meyer was calling for collaboration and sharing between the groups, whereas, according to him, the Ojibwe were intentionally attempting to preclude non-Indian fishers from catching walleye.

Spearfishing is also culturally embedded in the Ojibwe bands of Wisconsin. Even in modern society where Native Americans have access to the dominating society in which they live, many hold close the traditions and values of their people. Ancient Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) language provides insight into why the Ojibwe tribe values spearfishing. The name for the lands of Lac du Flambeau in Anishinaabe language is Waswaaganing; “Waswa,” means spearing with torch, “ganing,” means the locator, the place where it happens. Waswaaganing literally means the place where they fish with a torch (Nesper, Walleye 159). Spearing during the nighttime with a torch is a tradition of the Ojibwe and occurs in similar methods today only they use halogen lights on their boats. Ojibwe spearfishing is also a spiritual process. An article published by the University of Chicago Press discusses the relationship between the Ojibwe natives and the spirits of the animals they kill:

Before these subsistence activities became symbols of local Indian ethnic identity they were the basis of what is referred to as “traditional law” in some of the trials that would take place in the 1980s and 90s. At the root of this law were cosmological ideas about the reciprocal moral obligations entailed in the relationships between communities of human beings and animals and the reproductive consequences thereof, as well as the idea that the source of an individual’s power, identity, and morality lay in a personal relationship with a spiritual source. (“Negotiating Jurisprudence in Tribal Court and Emergence of a Tribal State”)

Many tribes, not just the Ojibwe, share this animistic belief. They believe that all life contains a spirit and those spirits shape their ways of living. Spearing a fish, to the Ojibwe, not only feeds their families and friends, but the spirit of the fish that has died will feed their ancestors’ spirits. Nesper confirms, “Ignoring resources…was tantamount to refusing to exchange with spirits, who would then offer no beneficence of any kind” (Walleye 38). The non-Indians’ attempts to disrupt this process of hunting and fishing would anger the Ojibwe ancestors and the fish would not reproduce. Non-Indians countered this argument, claiming most Ojibwe tribe members had converted to Christianity and could therefore not believe in a world of spirits and hungry ancestors. Many non-Indians also observed that the treaty was signed a few hundred years ago when the Ojibwe tribe had been pure. Now the Ojibwe bands were not full blooded natives of the land and therefore they do not deserve the same rights as those who were true Ojibwe members in the 1800s.

During the years of the late 1980s, many Ojibwe members were arrested for spearing outside of the reservation even though those rights were given to them in the treaties of the 1800s. The DNR proposed to negotiate with bands to compensate for the lost spearing time but non-Indians did not want to pay for the negotiation process. Loew mentions in her scholarly works the perspective of a protester: “I’m paying taxes to support them every week—to support this [spearfishing], to send them welfare checks, to give them all different kinds of aid….If we’re supporting them in those ways, why can’t they learn to live like the white man does?” (172). The non-Indians made it clear that the state of Wisconsin should not compensate the Ojibwe tribe through the taxpayer’s money.

Although the Supreme Court of Wisconsin decision that Ojibwe bands had the right to hunt and fish on ceded lands, the debate continues today. The tensions climaxed in the 1980s and 90s, but they still remain prevalent in modern society. The hostile walleye war has assisted in the rebirth of the Ojibwe traditions and ethnic identity. Today the Ojibwe proudly exercise the rights that were given to them when they gave up their land to the United States of America. The State of Wisconsin and non-Indian protesters continue to search for negotiations and ways to strategically control the natural resources that profit the capitalist society.

Works Cited

Anderson, Dennis. “Wisconsin Ojibwe Lay Claim to All Walleye in 79 Lakes.” Star Tribune 20 Mar. 1996. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.

Loew, Patty and Thannum, James. “After the Storm: Ojibwe Treaty Rights Twenty-Five Years After the Voight Decision.” American Indian Quarterly 35.2 (2011): 161-191. Print.

Nesper, Larry. “Negotiating Jurisprudence in Tribal Court and Emergence of a Tribal State.” Chicago Journals 48.5 (2007): 675-699. Print.

—. The Walleye War. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.

“Ojibwe Treaty Rights: 15 Years Later.” Wisconsin Historical Society. N.p., 19 May. 2006. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.

Instructor’s Memo

Writing Project 2 in my English 100 class asked students to write a literature review in which they would summarize, synthesize, and evaluate an ongoing conversation. Coming up with a conversation to research can be one of the most challenging aspects of such an assignment. Choose too broad of a topic, and you could wind up with generalizations and large gaps in the conversation. Choose too narrow, and your claims might become too one-sided and circuitous. Most writing prompts you’ll receive in college will be too open-ended to offer much help on picking a topic. My main advice for finding a topic, then, is to think about what interests you as a person and as a student (what are you thinking of majoring in and why? What interests you about a particular career? What concerns are pressing for you as an individual?). The English 100 literature review provides an opportunity to think deeply about something that matters to you, your future profession, or your home state (to offer a few general directions you might look for a topic).

Jake’s literature review is an excellent example of how choosing a topic your invested in can lead to a compelling, well-researched account of an issue. He narrowed his broader interest in history and politics by focusing on the fishing rights of the Ojibwe in Wisconsin. He had been learning about the Ojibwe in an anthropology course that semester, and he found himself interested in the conversation surrounding their rights. This interest shows. In his literature review, Jake successfully presents and evaluates the specific grounds on which the Ojibwe’s rights have been staged (legal, economic, and spiritual), effectively integrating historical and current perspectives in his review. Another strength of Jake’s paper is that he uses concrete examples to support his claims, with clear topic sentences that foreground the shape of the conversation he’s researching. Throughout the review, Jake demonstrates a deep understanding about the stakes of his topic for readers – he persuasively illustrates why it matters that we think about the Ojibwe’s rights in Wisconsin specifically and the motivations behind our treatment of people more generally.

–Catherine DeRose

Writer’s Memo

Choosing a topic for the explanatory essay in my English 100 class was the most difficult part in the writing process. Initially I wanted to compose an essay on a highly debated issue in the medical community since that is where my interest lies. However, I decided to avoid writing about a medical debate since this would only appeal to readers with a passion for medicine and would be uninteresting for all other readers. Choosing a topic that interested all readers was vital to writing a good paper and I made sure to take a lot of time to find a topic worth pursuing. It wasn’t until about three days before our first draft was due that I found the topic I was looking for. I chose to write on the Ojibwe tribes of Wisconsin and their treaty rights to hunting and fishing since I believed most people would be interested in learning about a vital part of Wisconsin history that is often overlooked.

I used many sources, both scholarly and popular, to start piecing together my essay and creating a conversation between the authors. I was especially intrigued by the ethnography The Walleye War, by Larry Nesper, in which he interacts with the Ojibwe tribes of Wisconsin for many years and researches their culture. His personal insight and research proved to be very useful in finding factual information about both the perspectives of the Ojibwe tribes, the non-Indians, and the Wisconsin state government. Other sources came from the 1996 Minnesota Star Tribune, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and other online articles using the UW-Madison library database. My essay was revised by two fellow students and my English 100 instructor before I was able to produce the final product.

The goal of this paper was to accurately present the arguments of the Ojibwe tribes of Wisconsin, the non-Indians, and the Wisconsin government. I felt myself side overwhelmingly with the Ojibwe tribes but I hope I have created a paper in which the readers can form their own opinions on this topic. I also tried to present both a historical aspect to this conversation while also showing the overall arguments that are still prevalent in modern society.

— Jacob Graboski

Student Writing Award: Explanatory Essay 


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Walleye War Copyright © 2019 by Jacob Graboski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.