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Red Lake tribe debates future of walleye fishery
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Newly elected Red Lake Chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain says one of his biggest challenges will be helping band members reach consensus on how to manage Red Lake's walleye fishery. Jourdain favors resuming commercial fishing, though more tightely controlled. He's against allowing outsiders to fish on the lake. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Hundreds of families on the Red Lake Indian Reservation once made their living from commercial walleye fishing. But decades of over-harvest nearly wiped out the walleye. In 1999, tribal, state and federal officials agreed to a recovery plan. Walleye fishing was banned. Now, biologists say the species has rebounded. They say walleye fishing can begin again in 2006. That presents a dilemma for the Red Lake people. Some tribal members want to open the lake to sports fishing and tourism. Others want the lake to remain off-limits to outsiders.

Red Lake Indian Reservation — Lower Red Lake is unique. Much of the shoreline is undeveloped and rugged. Tall reeds and grasses grow on windblown, sandy banks. There are no resorts, no fancy homes. Floyd "Buck" Jourdain, Red Lake's newly elected tribal chairman peers across the vast expanse of blue water.

"This lake is a very special place to the Ojibwe people in Red Lake," says Jourdain. "It's just been a gift to us, something that's been a means of sustenance and also just a gift from the creator."

Red Lake is huge -- the biggest inland lake in the state. A long, finger-shaped peninsula divides it into an upper and lower lake. Eighty percent of the lake is inside the borders of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. That means it's off limits to non-Indian anglers. The northeast end of the lake is under state control.

Red Lake was once considered one of the best walleye fisheries in the country. For decades, the tribe operated an aggressive commercial fishing business. In the late 1980s, commercial fishing took nearly a million pounds of walleye a year from Red Lake. Some say band members took another million pounds illegally. Jourdain says that's what caused the walleye population to crash.

If we open this reservation, that's the end of us. That will be the beginning of the end of the Red Lake Indian Reservation as we know it. We will no longer be unique, we will no longer have our culture.
- Red Lake Chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain

"A lot of greed, a lot of abuse, overfishing, just people exceeding the allotted amount of nets that they were supposed to be using," he explains. "There was black market fishing. And if it's not regulated, those kind of things are going to happen."

It's now Jourdain's job to lead his people through this final phase of walleye recovery. The tribe will have to decide how they'll harvest the fish when the moratorium ends in 2006.

"One thing is for certain, that the abuse has got to stop," Jourdain says. "And that's a major consensus with the band membership, is that it can never be the way it was before."

Just how the tribe will manage its walleye fishery is still an open question. One controversial proposal would allow non-Indian anglers to fish on Red Lake. That's something that's never been done. Supporters say sport fishing could create a tourism boom. The tribe could build resorts and young people could work as fishing guides.

Last winter, tribal member Sonny Johnson proposed an ice fishing tournament. The idea went nowhere. Johnson says half the people on the Red Lake Reservation are unemployed. He says the tribe should create jobs.

"I think it's a good idea, because it would bring in quite a few dollars for the tribe and people could probably put up their own businesses on that," says Johnson. "It'll create a lot of opportunity for all the people that's not working. Like, they could put up bait shops and all. It ain't that hard to run a bait shop, you know."

There are others who agree with Johnson, but none were willing to be interviewed for this story. Some estimate tourists in pursuit of walleye would spend five times the money generated by commercial fishing. But tribal officials say the fishing industry provided income to nearly 800 families. Many were devastated when walleye fishing was shut down.

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Image Donald Iceman, Sr.

Donald Iceman, Sr. lives in the village of Ponemah, which sits at the tip of a peninsula jutting between upper and lower Red Lake. Iceman, 68, has been a commercial fisherman all his life but his nets have been dry for seven years. Now, Iceman and others want the tribe to bring back commercial fishing.

"You can't even fish out there now," Iceman says. "Everybody went down, I'll tell you that. Everybody went down, so everybody's hungry for fish. Everybody around this community, that's what they were living for, you know, fish."

Ponemah is isolated. It's the most traditional community on the reservation. Greg Kingbird has lived there most of his life. Kingbird says most Red Lake band members don't look at the lake with dollar signs in their eyes. He says the lake means survival.

"If you didn't have a job, set nets, sell fish," says Kingbird. "Make enough money, sit back for a few days. Run out of money, go set again. That was a way of life. Before that moratorium you could go out there any day, get something to eat. You won't have to go to the food shelves. (Now) Even I go to the food shelves. I don't like that."

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Image Greg Kingbird

Most people in Ponemah don't want outsiders fishing on their lake. They don't want tourists, either. They say the chiefs who signed treaties in the late 1800s wanted it that way. Eugene Stillday is a Ponemah elder. He says the lake holds deep spiritual significance for the people.

"There are spiritual beings in that lake," says Stillday. "That's why we worship this lake. There are spiritual beings there, and we think a whole lot of them. And most recently, the younger generation, we have been neglecting that. We are dwelling in the white man's world."

Some in Ponemah believe the lack of walleye in their diet has contributed to health problems like diabetes and heart disease. They believe young people are losing their culture because they can't fish. Kingbird says tribal members are starving for the lake.

"We've been disconnected from that lake," said Kingbird. "There's no connection. The fish in the lake has been our life, young and old. You grow old by the lake. Now it's been cut off. You see people leaving for the other world. I believe now is a very critical time. That lake, the spirits are restless."

Biologists with the Minnesota DNR and the tribe's natural resources department say the walleye recovery has been remarkable. Together they've stocked more than 100 million walleye fry in Red Lake. Many of those fish are now old enough to reproduce on their own.

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Image Eugene Stillday

In some ways, restocking has been the easy part of the walleye recovery. The hard part now, will be for the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe to decide how they'll maintain the fishery. Chairman Buck Jourdain says it's a balancing act between culture and commerce. He favors reintroducing commercial fishing, though more tightly controlled. Jourdain is opposed to allowing non-Indian anglers onto the lake.

"If we open this reservation that's the end of us," said Jourdain. "That will be the beginning of the end of the Red Lake Indian Reservation as we know it. We will no longer be unique, we will no longer have our culture. I don't think a full all-out assault -- tourism, resort industry -- here in Red Lake is something that our tribe is ready for.

Tribal officials will get public input about the lake over the next few months. They're waiting for results from a Bemidji State University survey. There will also be a series of public forums in each of the reservation's villages. Some tribal members say the issue should be decided in a public referendum.

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