The Walleye War: The Struggle for Ojibwe Spearfishing and Treaty Rights

The Walleye War: The Struggle for Ojibwe Spearfishing and Treaty Rights

The Walleye War: The Struggle for Ojibwe Spearfishing and Treaty Rights

The Walleye War: The Struggle for Ojibwe Spearfishing and Treaty Rights


For generations, the Ojibwe bands of northern Wisconsin have spearfished spawning walleyed pike in the springtime. The bands reserved hunting, fishing, and gathering rights on the lands that would become the northern third of Wisconsin in treaties signed with the federal government in 1837, 1842, and 1854. Those rights, however, would be ignored by the state of Wisconsin for more than a century. When a federal appeals court in 1983 upheld the bands' off-reservation rights, a deep and far-reaching conflict erupted between the Ojibwe bands and some of their non-Native neighbors.

Starting in the mid-1980s, protesters and supporters flocked to the boat landings of lakes being spearfished; Ojibwe spearfisher-men were threatened, stoned, and shot at. Peace and protest rallies, marches, and ceremonies galvanized and rocked the local communities and reservations, and individuals and organizations from across the country poured into northern Wisconsin to take sides in the spearfishing dispute.

From the front lines on lakes to tense, behind-the-scenes maneuvering on and off reservations, The Walleye War tells the riveting story of the spearfishing conflict, drawing on the experiences and perspectives of the members of the Lac du Flambeau reservation and an anthropologist who accompanied them on spearfishing expeditions. We learn of the historical roots and cultural significance of spearfishing and off-reservation treaty rights and we see why many modern Ojibwes and non-Natives view them in profoundly different ways. We also come to understand why the Flambeau tribal council and some tribal members disagreed with the spearfishermen and pursued a policy of negotiation with the state to lease the off-reservation treaty rights for fifty million dollars. Fought with rocks and metaphors, The Walleye War is the story of a Native people's struggle for dignity, identity, and self-preservation in the modern world.


My brother Glen graduated from Ripon College with Nick Van Der Puy in 1975. By the late 1970s they had both come to live within a few miles of each other in Eagle River, Wisconsin, forty miles east of Lac du Flambeau. Nick drew me into the spearfishing conflict as a supporter in 1988 and 1989. in the spring of 1989, while standing in solidarity with spearing families on the boat landings, I decided to undertake an ethnographic study of what was unfolding, having returned to graduate school the previous fall. I made seven trips to Lac du Flambeau and other Indian communities in northern Wisconsin between mid-April and mid-July of that year.

I lived at Lac du Flambeau for seven months from February to September of 1991, doing fieldwork on the cultural dimensions of a conflict that was at that point largely over. I began my work by informing Mike Allen, then tribal chairman, of my interest, giving him a copy of my dissertation proposal. As we had become somewhat acquainted during the spearing season of 1989, he agreed that such a study would be worthwhile. I then sought out Tom Maulson, Nick Hockings, Scott Smith, and Gilbert Chapman—whom I had also met in 1989—told them of my interest, provided them with copies of my first published work so they could understand my goals (Nesper 1989b), and secured their support. As I met more of the people who appear in this book, I told them of my interest and intentions. the stories and accounts in the text are their recollections. Accounts that are not specifically identified with tribal members are my own perceptions and memories of events.

I had a great many breakfasts in the Outpost Cafe talking with spearers. in the afternoons, I visited Family Circles, one of the tribal social program offices that sought to involve tribal members more deeply in their culture. It was there that I spoke with Ernie St. Germaine, who would soon become the band's chief judge. I also attended language classes, ceremonies, public events, and meetings, which led . . .

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