- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2015

NISSWA, Minn. (AP) - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources moved to defuse a treaty rights challenge Thursday by issuing a group of Chippewa Indians a special permit to harvest wild rice on Hole-in-the-Day Lake in east-central Minnesota - but leaders of the action said their fight isn’t over.

Dozens of supporters and members of the 1855 Treaty Authority gathered on the shore in Nisswa on Thursday as several paddled canoes out to harvest wild rice without state licenses to assert rights they contend they hold under the agreement.

While the DNR disputes their interpretation of the treaty, and had warned that anyone harvesting wild rice without state licenses risked citations and confiscation of their rice and equipment, the state agency issued a one-day permit to allow the unlicensed harvest, citing its authority to do so for educational or exhibition purposes.

The move meant no citations that could have led to a court challenge on whether Chippewa bands have special hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the territory ceded under the 1855 treaty.

“It’s the smartest thing they could do from their standpoint to make sure they didn’t have any confrontation,” said Frank Bibeau, a lawyer for the 1855 Treaty Authority, which is independent of the state’s tribal governments.

Arthur “Archie” LaRose, chairman of the 1855 Treaty Authority and secretary-treasurer of the Leech Lake Band, tore up his copy of the special permit. He said the DNR can’t grant rights that native people never gave up, and called the permit a cheap way for the DNR to duck the legal issues.

Bibeau said many of the same people will return to Hole-in-the-Day Lake on Friday to harvest again and they don’t believe they need the state’s permission.

But the DNR’s enforcement chief, Col. Ken Soring, said he didn’t think the agency would issue another special permit Friday, and that conservation officers will stand ready to enforce the law against anyone who gathers wild rice off-reservation without a license. That could mean warnings, citations and confiscation of rice, canoes and other equipment, he said.

Many tribal members regularly buy state harvesting licenses and the $15-30 fees go to protect habitat that grows wild rice, he said.

The bands that signed the 1855 treaty ceded a large part of northern and central Minnesota to the federal government. Unlike the 1837 treaty between the federal government and the Mille Lacs Band, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 1999 and covers a different territory, the 1855 treaty doesn’t explicitly say anything about off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering rights. But the group contends the treaty, backed by case law and federal statutes, guarantees those rights anyway.

The DNR seized nets and fish from Chippewa Indians who tried to fish in Lake Bemidji on the day before the season opener in 2010 in an earlier test of the treaty, but issued no citations and no cases went to court. One of the leaders of that protest was American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks, who went to Hole-in-the-Day Lake on Thursday to show his support for the latest action.

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