In the Spotlight

News & Features
Native and White Relations Strained
in Mille Lacs Town
By Leif Enger
April 14, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the Mainstreet Radio series Treaty Rights and Tribal Sovereignty

A decade ago in Wisconsin, angry racial confrontations became everyday news when Indians began spearfishing under restored treaty rights. The same rights have been upheld in Minnesota. This spring, members of the Mille Lacs and seven other Ojibway bands are spearing and gillnetting walleye on waters in east-central Minnesota, including Lake Mille Lacs. Some worry the same kinds of confrontations could happen here. The long battle over treaty rights has already strained relations between Indians and whites.

The Onamia School District has about 800 students. One hundred twenty or so are Native American. There's nothing unfriendly or unusual in the way they group up at lunch time - still, you can't help but notice the gradual drift of native students toward other native students, of whites toward whites. Superintendent Jim Nelson.

Nelson: My honest read on it is, they get along very well through the primary grades; and as they get a little bit older and move on through the junior high school, you start to see more separation by race. You'll start to see the kids eating together more; they'll be in the halls together more. That's a pattern that's seen all over the country.
Like other school districts fringing reservations, Onamia's past is marked with occasional race problems - student walkouts, fights, complaints of bigotry. But the 1990s have been mostly calm. One reason is teacher and Mille Lacs Band member Russell Boyd. Boyd teaches Ojibway history and tradition to students, both native and white. For natives, he's a friend in the halls of authority; for whites, he's a quiet overture from another culture.
Boyd: We've had Indian parents bring in some of the food preparation, fry bread; especially in the elementary we've tried to bring some of the language into the classroom. At one time it was almost like a wall, when you got to this reservation. That wall has come down, is what I see.
If the Onamia School District is trying harder now to prevent racial discord, it's because signs of discord have increased outside of school. The success of native casinos, the Band's rise to economic and political influence, and, most of all, the long court battle over treaty rights - all have moved issues of race to the front burner at Mille Lacs. Pick up a copy of the weekly Mille Lacs Messenger. Read the letters to the editor.
First letter to editor: Why do Native Americans have a complete monopoly on gambling in Minnesota? Now they want exclusive rights for spearing and netting on Mille Lacs Lake. What happened to equal rights for all people? Sounds like discrimination to me.

Second letter to editor: My blood pressure is on the rise again. The Band is becoming like a spoiled child. They want all the public services and social benefits from the county and state, yet pay none of the taxes.

Third letter to editor: Division by race isn't always bad. We Band members have our own casinos, schools, and hunting and fishing laws. We don't want your tax dollars - we want our independence.

Fourth letter to editor: I ask: can an Indian not learn to fish with hook and line, like the rest of us?

Jim Baden: In truth, I do believe there have been more than a few bridges burned between the communities because of this issue.

Jim Baden is editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger. The paper takes heat from treaty opponents for being too soft on the Band - also heat from Band members, for the opposite sin. Baden says natives and whites are less friendly now than when he took this job nine years ago - a disintegration that's been hard to watch, and harder to write about.
Baden: It's a difficult thing for a community paper, to cover such an emotional upheaval in its community. We don't go home to Anoka at night. We all live here, we shop here, this story is our story. We're covering ourselves as we do this story.
Since the Band filed its treaty suit in 1990, every development has been given its racial spin. At an Ojibway rally near Mille Lacs Lake in 1992, Mel Rasmussen anticipated that one day he'd be spearing there as he had in Wisconsin: under the threat of violence.
Rasmussen: Sure, I'm sick of protesters. God, we're all sick of 'em. It's frightening, you and maybe one other person going down to a landing, and there's 800 people there who don't like you. It's really frightening.
When a federal court upheld treaty rights in 1994, it seemed to this white fisherman that natives had used the proceeds from one injustice, the Mille Lacs casino, to purchase another: exclusive rights to spear and gillnet.
Unidentified white fisherman: When you came in here, I didn't ask you what race you were. It shouldn't matter. We are all one nation, under God.
Last year, a group of local businesses launched a boycott of the Mille Lacs casino. The Band shrugged off the effort as racist. When an appeals court delayed last spring's tribal fishing season at the request of treaty opponents, Band member Michael Nikkaboine responded.
Nikkaboine: Who's greedy? Who's the greedy one, who's the greedy persons? The white people, white folk. They want all the fish, they want all the fish themselves. That's what I think.
The cycle has gone this way: the Band achieves a legal victory. Non-Indian opponents appeal, or complain. The Band charges racism. The opponents charge reverse racism. There is talk all around of unfairness, inequality, distrust. Some non-Indians around Mille Lacs - even those who don't fish or hunt - say they can't envision true racial harmony as long as there are two sets of laws for two groups of people.

At Living Waters, a small, white, Assemblies of God congregation near Mille Lacs, parishioners recently tried a different approach to race relations. The church invited a native evangelist to host a series of meetings. About fifteen Ojibway families came. It was the first time in her eight years at Living Waters that pastor Eunice Boeringa had seen natives and whites worship side by side.

Boeringa: This probably won't be too popular. But Paul talked about it - he said, You take each other to court - why not rather be cheated? Why not suffer a bit? There's been a lot of hostility, oppression, in the past. We have to let go of it. We have to say, "I'd rather be abused than not to walk in love with you, because you are my brother."