Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Anishinabe and an unsung nonviolent victory in late twentieth-century Wisconsin

In the wake of the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, many Native Americans adopted civil resistance to fight for rights supposedly guaranteed in the 19th century by the government's treaties with their tribes. This true story is how one tribe in Wisconsin, using nonviolent strategies, prevailed in that fight.

In spring of 1986 I got a call from Walter Bresette, a Red Cliff Anishinabe (aka Anishinabeg, Ojibwa, Ojibwe, Chippewa) native American. Walter was a treaty rights leader for the 13 bands of Lake Superior Ojibwa and he said to me:

“Get a van full of people and meet me at Butternut Lake as fast as you can. We’ve got hundreds of whites swarming our fishers. They are attacking in boats and with wrist-rockets from the woods along the shore. Hurry.”

I quickly rounded up several hardy peace and justice folks and we headed south from the shores of Gitchii Guumii (Lake Superior) to meet Walter at what would become known as the Battle of Butternut Lake. Native treaty rights activists, their Native supporters and non-Native supporters were virtually 100 percent nonviolent, but we did join treaty rights opponents in battle. It was the opening skirmish in what would become several years of treaty rights wars - a war conducted with nonviolence on one side.

In the end, the bands of native Americans won, flat-out. Not only were treaty rights totally affirmed, they went from being bemoaned and denigrated by officials to championed and celebrated by many of the same government employees who had bitterly opposed those rights in the beginning.

At one point during the campaign, American Indian Movement (AIM) activists came north from Minneapolis to the boat landings just 60 miles away in Wisconsin. They were physically intimidating and in fact shoved one anti-treaty rights demonstrator over a police barricade, breaking the fellow’s arm. The Anishinabe leadership met with AIM and said, “Please don’t come back until you can do this the Anishinabe way.” AIM went back to Minneapolis and, when they came north again, to the Mole Lake area, they were dignified and nonviolent.

That the treaty rights struggle for the Lake Superior Ojibwe was waged with nonviolent methods doesn’t mean that it was waged using the actual word ‘nonviolence.’ I rarely heard that word, especially from the Anishinabe side. But the practice was perfect. It was not Gandhian nonviolence; it was Anishinabe nonviolence.

Anishinabe nonviolence

One afternoon in April, 1989, as the struggle reached its most furious point - including, from the other side, shotguns, pipe bombs and the most incendiary racism I’ve ever heard with my own ears - Walter called and told me to be in the Red Cliff marina parking lot by 5 p.m. “I want you to witness and write,” he instructed.

We met: Walter, me, a tribal judge and Francis. (photo of Walter Bresette and Frank Koehn) They hooked the boat trailer, made fast the boat, checked gear and we left for Lake Nebagamon, some 90 miles to the south and west and south again. On the drive, I sat in the back seat with Walter and I asked Andy, the tribal judge, “OK, you are a judge. Most, if not all, of the spearfishers are employed and need to be on the job tomorrow morning. We aren’t going to get home until at least midnight (it was after 7 a.m., barely in time for my 8 a.m. class), and you will probably give most of your fish to the Senior Center or the day care center. Why are you doing this?”

There was a long pause. At last, he turned partially toward me, glanced at me, returned his eyes to the highway and said, simply, “Fish have as much to do with this as coffee had to do with the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South.” A little lightbulb went off in my head. Then we arrived as it was darkening toward a long night.

It was intimidating. There were at least 200 bellowing racists, yelling obscenities and generally acting like drunken bullies. There were two sheriff’s deputies with their yellow police line tape, four Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) official fish monitors, three spearfishers and one Witness for Peace - me. I got out of the car hoping my nonviolence training would work all evening, that I’d be able to defuse any violence toward my friends or me. The hatred was palpable, coming from both sides of the gauntlet - the boat landing down which Andy had backed his little boat. “Timber niggers!” was one of the milder racial epithets.

Walter emerged and stood looking at all those arrayed against him. He went back to the trunk, opened it, and took out his insulated blaze orange deer hunting suit and slowly put it on as we watched. Then he stood, arms outstretched, and stared into the hostile crowd pressing up against the tape and slowly turned around, first making himself visible and then making himself heard: “These people like easy targets. Well, here’s one for you!”

I have seen brave acts by many nonviolent warriors, but none braver than Walter in that moment. He and the three others were about to put into troubled waters, a lake where someone had shot at Francis and another fisher just the week before, missing them and blowing tree branches down on them from above. We were surrounded by people who evidently felt like one of the Anishinabe characters in a Louise Erdrich novel, who described some whites as believing that “the only interesting Indian is dead, or dying by falling backwards off a horse.” (Erdrich: 91) This mob looked and sounded as though it would have been happy to see the fishers swamped, drowned, bombed, shot or stabbed. And they had signs with provocative messages such as, Save a walleye, spear an Indian.

Usufructuary rights

The ancient Anishinabe had practiced spearing in the spring for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. There was no shortage of fish for them; they lived in a pristine environment of abundance and they took not for trophy or sport, but for subsistence. Indeed, even with the tragic and preventable pollution that today contaminates the fish even of remote northern Wisconsin waters, the fish often provide the best source of protein for many Natives subjected to the starch-and-carbohydrate-heavy, protein-deficient diet so common to those reliant on government commodities. (Vennum: 277)

The tribal leadership of the period of white encroachment had somehow foreseen what they needed to do. They had negotiated the usufructuary rights to continue to hunt, fish and gather in treaties dating back to 1837, 1842 and 1854. Those rights had been immediately abrogated in the nineteenth century, but after the Civil Rights era, many groups, including Native Americans, were determined to use robust yet nonviolent methods of assertion of their human rights and their treaty rights.

Fred and Mike Tribble, two Lac Court Oreilles Anishinabe brothers, were studying treaty law in college and realized the tribes still had many usufructuary rights to hunt and gather on off-reservation lands that were called ceded territory. These rights are similar to reserved mineral rights, for example, that cloud titles to much land in the US.

So the Tribble brothers tested the rights by committing an act of civil resistance; in 1974 they set their ice fishing lines on off-reservation waters in the ceded territory in full view of game wardens, and were charged. The court case made its way to the federal level eventually and the treaty rights were upheld after almost a decade of arguments, findings and appeals. (Bresette: 8) But those rights were only on paper until the enormous white backlash could be overcome, an opposition that included many state officials in Wisconsin. Thus, when fishers tried to exercise the rights, they were attacked.

Had the fishers or their supporters reacted with violence, it is certain they would have been crushed, and it’s quite likely that the court of public opinion would have continued to oppose those rights. But from a beginning point of public opposition to treaty rights in 1986, the tribes and supporters waged a nonviolent, stoic, witnessing campaign and were calm and dignified in the face of massive, virulent provocation. Public opinion slowly changed as tribal members displayed patience and suffering that whites could only admire, especially in the face of mindless hatred and sputtering, shrill venom. It was a classic formula for a nonviolent victory against all the odds. Americans love a David against a Goliath, especially when the David isn’t threatening anyone.

By 1992, when I was still writing for the newspaper Walter Bresette founded, the Mazina’igan: A Chronicle of the Lake Superior Ojibwe, I was at the GLIFWC (glif-wick) office one morning when a warden came in after a night at a boat landing in Michigan. The Wisconsin struggles had all played out, but the member bands in Minnesota and Michigan were still working through some final issues. “Well two treaty rights protesters showed up last night,” said the warden. We looked at him, concerned. “We talked and ended up toasting marshmallows together on a campfire.”

Nonviolent Anishinabe struggles, as serious as the death threats they faced, were waged fearlessly and essentially flawlessly. It was total victory.


Bresette, Walter, “A brief history of the Anishinabe,” in: Whaley, Rick and Walter Bresette, Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth.

Conboy, Martin, Journalism: A Critical History.

Erdrich, Louise, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

Schulke, Flip and Penelope McPhee, King Remembered.

Vennum, Thomas, Jr., Wild Rice and the Ojibway People.

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