Treaty case to be heard today

Melissa Berg

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a historic case today that could affect Indian treaty rights throughout the country.

The Mille Lacs Chippewa Indians began the case in 1990. The tribe challenged the state of Minnesota’s authority to apply state game and fish laws to tribe members on east-central Minnesota land ceded to the government.

Larry Gross, member of a Minnesota Chippewa tribe and professor of religious studies and American Indian studies at Iowa State, said a dozen Chippewa bands signed the land over to the U.S. government in exchange for hunting, fishing and gathering rights on ancestral land in 1837.

The validity of this treaty, as well as other Indian treaties, is the issue that will be argued today in the case.

Article Five of the Treaty with the Chippewa, made on July 29, 1837, states: “The privilege of hunting, fishing and gathering the wild rice upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included the territory ceded is guaranteed to the Indians.”

“The state of Minnesota argues that all treaty rights were extinguished when the state entered the Union in 1858,” Gross said. “The Mille Lacs believe their treaty rights last forever.”

The Mille Lacs tribe is arguing its usufructuary rights, which means they have the right to benefit from lands belonging to another.

Minnesota has eight states supporting them by submitting briefs in the case. The Mille Lacs tribe has 32 other tribes backing its position in the case as well.

In 1983, a federal judge ruled that members of the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa retain hunting and fishing rights in areas of Wisconsin covered by the treaty.

Devery Fairbanks, member of a Minnesota Chippewa tribe and faculty member in American Indian Studies, said he is bothered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s involvement in the case.

“This is not a good time for the Indians to be involved in a Supreme Court case,” he said. “The Supreme Court is not very Indian friendly right now because of a very conservative court.”

Gross and Fairbanks agreed that the outcome of this case is very important for many reasons.

Hunting and fishing rights have religious importance as well as economic importance, Gross said.

“It is a very important issue for the future Native American people,” Fairbanks said. “The case could affect their rights to operate casinos as well as the treaty rights.”