Ojibwe deer hunters in trouble with DNR cite 180-year-old treaty

The Ojibwe men said their rights to hunt and fish the land were guaranteed in 1837.

The Ojibwe men said their rights to hunt and fish the land were guaranteed in 1837.

On November 1, 2015,  Tony Morris and Randy Finn went into the woods near Blackduck to hunt. As Morris drove, Finn spotted a deer on the side of the road. They stopped. Finn aimed out the window and shot.

Morris gutted the deer and dragged it out of the woods. He was confronted by a woman who lived nearby and had heard the gunshots. She told him he was trespassing on her property.

The woman later filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which charged the men with hunting out of season. They’re both due in court on Friday. If convicted, they could receive a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Morris and Finn are in trouble under state law, but because they’re Native Americans, they have a right to kill that deer, says attorney Frank Bibeau. And that’s because of a treaty between the Ojibwe and the U.S. government that was established back in 1837.

In return for millions of acres of land stretching from Wisconsin to Minnesota, the Ojibwe chiefs who negotiated this treaty got a paltry sum of goods and services as well as one powerful promise: the right to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice in the lands they were giving up so that they could feed themselves.

Over time, various state governments decided this treaty had become history. Native Americans started getting arrested and cited for fishing throughout Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

They sued, and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually sided with them in its 1999 Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians. The tribe had the right to go off-reservation for hunting and gathering on land that their ancestors ceded, regardless of state regulations that apply to everyone else. 

In this case with Morris, Finn, and the deer killed out of season, Bibeau says the great state of Minnesota is just confused. 

"In order to take those rights away, you have to go through Congress, because our treaties are federal," the lawyer says. "The state has no authority whatsoever, and that’s the part that befuddles the state. It doesn’t understand its role because it wasn’t even a state when we made the treaties. The state was founded in 1858. It got what’s left."