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Chippewa Band Members Test Limits Of Tribal Harvesting Rights

NISSWA, Minn. (WCCO) -- Chippewa tribal members covered by an 1855 treaty got what they wanted on Friday – citations.

Four band members were issued tickets for allegedly setting illegal gill nets and harvesting wild rice without a required license.

The band members are out to test the validity of their off-reservation hunting, fishing and harvesting rights, which they say were promised in an 1855 treaty with the federal government.

On Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources granted them a one-day "ceremonial permit" to gather wild rice without a license. It was an attempt to diffuse what could become a confrontational setting.

Tribal elders and teenagers returned on Friday to Hole in the Day Lake near Nisswa for a second day of wild rice harvesting and a show of civil disobedience.

They are exercising a belief that off-reservation treaty rights are as valid today as they were 160 years ago when the treaty was granted in exchange for ceding a large tract of northern Minnesota.

"It's part of our culture and it's awesome out there on the lake," Mille Lacs band member Aaron Thompson said. "It's what I love to do."

Thompson was among the very youngest members to head onto the lake and gather wild rice. He and his partner, Wil, returned to shore with about 10 pounds of rice in the bottom of their canoe. He was not met by conservation officers and did not get a citation, despite not having a valid ricing permit.

Harvey Goodsky came away with a piece of paper.

"They gave me a citation," Goodsky shouted.

He and his fiancé were cited for harvesting without a state required permit. The rice they had been gathering for an upcoming wedding was confiscated by the conservation officers.

"My belief is, due to the treaties signed by my forefathers long ago, that we have the right to hunt, fish and gather rice and berries as we chose," he said.

Tribal member Todd Thompson took it even further. He and Jim Northrup decided to challenge the DNR by setting a gill net in Gull Lake. Both men were issued citations and their net was confiscated.

"[It says] 'take fish by illegal method,'" he said. "So we'll find out in a couple of weeks what the next step is going to be."

The DNR maintains the position that the 1855 treaty is different from other treaties that extend off-reservation rights and does not grant the same hunting, fishing and gathering rights.

Tribal attorney Frank Bibeau says if members are prosecuted, it will invite a court challenge they look forward to.

"It's a violation of any authority they have, regardless even if they send a ticket or not," Bibeau said.

They hope citations will lead to greater rights down the road.

Goodsky smiled at the thought of his rice being confiscated and said, "It's kind of a bummer – it was going to be a good dish for the wedding."

It's will be up to the Crow Wing County Attorney to decide if the citations issued on Friday will end up in court.

Tribal leaders say they will continue to rice without licenses on other lakes in the ceded territory.

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