MADISON — With the state of Wisconsin and Chippewa tribes headed to court over hunting deer at night, some worry that a relationship strained by several high-profile controversies — walleye quotas, mining and the wolf hunt — is unraveling.
It is a relationship that bears close attention, especially as the state Legislature again tackles the subject of mining reform. With their powerful treaties and sovereign nation status, the Chippewa will have an important role in deciding whether any mine moves forward in roughly the northern third of the state.
The tribes and the state forged a much closer union in the wake of the spearfishing controversies of the 1980s and 1990s when complicated court cases, ugly protests and long negotiations reaffirmed the tribes’ rights to fish, hunt and gather in territory they ceded to the United States in treaties signed in the 1800s.
Now, people such as George Meyer, a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary, say the hard-learned lessons of the spearfishing years seem to have been forgotten and the goodwill that has built up between the tribe and the state in the intervening decades is in danger.
“I’m greatly concerned about the deterioration of the relations between the state and Wisconsin’s tribes,” Meyer said last week.
Now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Meyer is well versed in tribal affairs. He was the DNR’s chief lawyer during the spearfishing controversy and spent many hours at both the negotiating table and at boat landings, where he helped lead efforts to prevent the frequently ugly protests by anti-spearing locals from escalating into violence.
Meyer pointed to several recent issues — in addition to the night deer hunting proposal — that have resulted in heightened tension, including differences between the tribes and the DNR over walleye spearing quotas last spring, opposition of the tribes to the proposed iron mine in the Penokee Range above the Bad River reservation, and opposition of the tribes to the state’s first recreational wolf hunt. Also, the state objected in September when an elder from the Lac Courte Oreilles band killed an elk near Clam Lake for ceremonial purposes.
In all of those cases, with tribes and the state on opposite sides of the fence, the state publicly challenged the tribe’s authority, and dealings were tense.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp disagreed that relations have worsened and that the state, especially the DNR, is being more confrontational.
“I wouldn’t characterize our interactions with the tribes as increasingly confrontational at all,” Stepp said. “In fact, I doubt they would either. We have made extraordinary strides in opening the doors of communication between the state and the tribes compared to those before our administration.“
Stepp listed a number of areas where she said the state has made progress in working with the tribes including youth initiatives, fisheries management, and cooperative efforts to manage hatcheries. She added that the agency also was respectful of the tribes’ views toward wolves when it set up the current wolf hunt.
“There have always been and will most likely be issues where the tribes and the state disagree on management practices and rules,” Stepp said. “We will continue to be respectful of the processes in place to manage those disagreements and work in good faith to come to joint decisions that both sides will be content with.“
Tribe, DNR remain cordial
Mike Wiggins Jr., chairman of the Bad River Chippewa, said daily working relationships between environmental professionals of the tribe and the DNR remain cordial and positive. But he added there are numerous issues, including mining and the wolf hunt, on which the tribes and the state disagree. Especially in some of the discussions that led up to the introduction of new mine permitting legislation, Wiggins said, the tribes felt “marginalized and forgotten.“
And the tribe, Wiggins said, is closely watching work on new mining legislation.
“When state legislators and the governor keep referring to a rewrite of mining laws that will eliminate accountability on the environment for mining companies, we have issues with that,” Wiggins said.
Tom Maulson, chairman of the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa, said the fault for any current strain lies less with Stepp and the DNR than with state legislators who failed to work with the tribes on mining and who pushed through a wolf hunt that locked the DNR into hunting practices the tribes consider wrong.
“(Stepp) has to do what the Legislature says,” Maulson said.
Tribes opposed the wolf hunt on cultural grounds, refusing to kill the wolves they were allowed under the quota system set up by the DNR.
“I think the state showed a lack of respect to both the wolves and the Indian people,” Maulson said.
Jauch says tribes left out
State Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, a northern Wisconsin legislator who has been deeply involved in the mining issue, echoed the sentiment of tribal leaders who said much of the current unease can be traced to state lawmakers failing to include the tribes in discussions on mining legislation. He said that because of their treaties and their status as a sovereign government, the Chippewa are equal and key players in the future of any mining project in the ceded territory.
Jauch said an increasingly confrontational relationship between the state and the tribes is “unhealthy and unwise” and “likely to perpetuate greater racial tensions in the state.“
Meyer, testifying before a legislative mining committee last week, also criticized state legislators who failed to understand that the proposed iron mine in the Penokees was directly upstream from the Bad River homeland.
“The way it happened was so offensive,” Meyer said of how the tribes were treated. “And it has driven such a divide.“
State Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, the only Republican to oppose the mine permitting bill, agreed. “I don’t sense there is any goodwill up there now at all,” Schultz said. “I think we can do better.“
Lawyer blames ’ignorance’
Glenn Stoddard, a lawyer who represents the Bad River Chippewa band, said that in his dealings with state officials he sees fewer people who were around during the spearfishing battles and who fully understand the treaties and the powers they give the tribes.
“A lot of this is coming out of ignorance,” Stoddard said. “And when you put ignorance on top of disrespect, it leads to hard feelings and anger.“
Peter David, a biologist who works with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission on everything from wolves to rice, said there are some very practical reasons for the tribes and the state to be on good terms. Since the resolution of the spearfishing controversy, resource experts with the state and the tribes have engineered a number of environmental successes in the Northwoods.
“The walleye fishery is healthier,” David said. “And we certainly know a lot more about it. And the wild rice harvest on off-reservation lands has increased by 20 percent since then. That’s totally because of the cooperative efforts between the state and the tribes.“
Stoddard also had a practical take on the need to improve relations: Anything, he said, is better than fighting in court.
“Whenever you end up in litigation, it means a judge is going to make all the decisions,” Stoddard said. “The parties that are actually the ones interested in the issues really don’t have a say.“
Maulson said, for example, that he was disappointed that the DNR took the tribes to court over their plans to hunt deer at night. He said the tribes put adequate safety measures in place and that any remaining differences could have been handled through negotiations.
“If you don’t want to tarnish the respect that has been built up or tarnish the agreements we’ve worked out over the years, let’s sit down,” Maulson said. “Are we going to shut down relations with the DNR or the state of Wisconsin? No, we’re going to try and sit down and work things out.“
That is also Meyer’s advice. He suggested the state be more willing to spend time at the negotiating table and not be so quick to go to court. During the spearfishing controversy, Meyer said, more than 100 issues were resolved through negotiations, a far larger number than had to be dealt with in the courts.
“People need to get back to the negotiating table,” Meyer said. “You can’t get a divorce.“
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