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When Ojibway Indians in eastern Minnesota won restoration of an 1837 treaty, tribal leaders called it a victory for native traditions - including spearfishing and gillnetting. This spring the Mille Lacs Band and seven other Ojibway tribes are taking fish under their own laws.
But some say the laws are too strict. Every fish taken by band members must be weighed and measured by wardens. What was once a comfortable custom is now monitored, scrutinized, and recorded. Mille Lacs band member Vince Merrill spoke about gillnetting, the Warrior Society, and whether tradition can survive as written law.
MPR: SO NOW IT'S LEGAL FOR BAND MEMBERS TO GILLNET AND SPEAR, under the 1837 Treaty - but you've actually been netting for some years, haven't you, as part of an informal group - the Warrior Society?
Merrill: It was a bunch of men that would plan hunting trips, spearing trips: they'd take care of people who couldn't fend for themselves. The warriors - the Warrior Society. My grandfather, when he was growing up, it was already dying out. My cousin's father kind of revived it one day: we were talking about it, some of us, and he said, "Hey, that's us. Let's do it," you know? And we started doin' those things - going out gillnetting. Yeah, we'd take buckets of fish to the elders, you know.MPR: How do you go about netting? What do you do - what do you use?
Merrill: A canoe. Couple paddles. A net, two floatation devices: I like to use old Prestone bottles. Rinse 'em out and cork 'em up. I shouldn't reveal my tricks - but I used to use a glass bottle, 'cause you couldn't see it unless you were close to it. Drop your net down in the water - you gotta have two people, one to paddle you along as you string the net out. String it a hundred feet, a typical net size. Make sure it drops straight down, no tangles in it. And wait.MPR: This isn't something you do real often -
Merrill: The only time I really go netting is for ceremonial purposes, 'cause I belong to some of these ceremonial doings around the area. Feasts, naming ceremonies, you know - where they're gonna feed some people.MPR: There've been so many rules written, now, for netting and spearing. Every time you lift your net, a warden has to be along. Every fish gets weighed and measured. I can't help wondering - is it still worth doing?
Merrill: The only two things I remember about going netting was: if there was a woman along, if she was on her moon, then she couldn't go or touch the net. That was one rule. Another was: put your tobacco out when you get to the lake. That was the only two rules I remember about going netting. Now - you might as well buy a license, you know? Same as going with a rod and a reel. Say the elders in East Lake call me up, say, "We're gonna have that dance next week and we want some fish." That's ceremony, and that's something the people have been doing for hundreds of years. I don't think there should be any restrictions to that. If those elders tell me to go out netting, I don't think I should have to come back and have somebody count 'em, weigh 'em, make sure they're male or whatever. I think I should be able to bring my fish home and clean 'em and bring 'em to the elders, say, "Here's the fish for the dance tomorrow." You know?MPR: It's legal now for you to gillnet, to spearfish. But, legality aside, is tradition being served by the 1837 Treaty?
Merrill: I feel like more violation is being done than the good of letting native people have their treaty rights. I'd rather go put out my net and get caught and get a ticket than have ten guys on shore saying, "Hey let me look at your fish - this one's too small, throw this one back - you guys were netting in the wrong area." That's like somebody coming and asking if they can count your money or something. That would be more disgraceful, for me. I'd rather have the DNR come out and say, "Give me your net, man, you're caught." There at least you're standing up for yourself.MPR: You and Suzanne have kids you're trying to raise in traditional Ojibway fashion. Will having these treaty rights make it easier to pass the traditions down? Or harder?
Merrill: I've been waiting for my son to get to the age when he could help me go netting. And when I take him out netting I wanna teach him what I was taught - I don't want to have to contend with a bunch of rules and regulations about netting. Netting is netting, to me.MPR: And are you worried there could be protests against native gillnetters? Maybe violent protests, as they had in Wisconsin?
Merrill: It's the chance you got to take, I think, being in our position. I'm hoping people will just say, "Hey, we're cool with this; you guys go out and get your fish, man, and we'll leave you alone." That's what I'm hoping. But that ain't the way things usually work out.