Synthesis/Regeneration 9   (Winter 1996)

Rick Whaley & Walter Bresette

Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and For the Earth

reviewed by Rhoda R. Gilman, Minnesota Green Party

Rick Whaley & Walter Bresette, Walleye Warriors. An Effective Alliance Against Racism and For the Earth, foreword by Winona LaDuke.
New Society Publishers, Philadelphia PA, 1994. 256 p. Illus., biblio, index. Paper, $17.95 US/Cloth, $39.95.

The treaties by which the Anishinabe (now known as Chippewa) ceded northern Wisconsin and east-central Minnesota in 1837 and 1842 form the background for a struggle over hunting and fishing rights that went on for nearly a decade in Wisconsin and may soon reopen in Minnesota. With their eyes on timber and minerals, frontier government officials rammed the agreements through without concern for fairness or clarity. The Anishinabe in 1837 proposed a lease arrangement by which timber could be cut but the land would remain theirs, and the question of whether, in signing, they really knew that the land itself had been sold is still a murky one. In any case, then, and again in 1842, they did insist and understand that they were to have the continuing right to hunt and fish.

When reservations were defined for the various bands in 1854, the government assumed that the right was rescinded, but courts reviewing the question in the 1970s and 1980s found otherwise. Thus state regulation of hunting and fishing on public land does not apply to those Anishinabe whose ancestors signed the treaties. In trying to exercise their long-suppressed rights, however, tribal people have faced a storm of opposition from both state authorities and local citizens.

Walleye Warriors, which received the nonfiction award of the Wisconsin Writers Council in 1994, tells of the confrontation that lasted in that state from 1983 to 1992. The authors, who were both among founders of the Upper Great Lakes Green Network, share the story in separate chapters: Bresette writing from his perspective as a tribal member and treaty rights defender; and Whaley from his as an urban environmental and human rights activist. The organization of the book suffers a little from this arrangement, but it makes up for it in first-hand reporting and hard-hitting observation. Generous footnotes at the end of each chapter also help to fill out the story.

The traditional Anishinabe custom of spearfishing quickly became the focus of protest, and when tribal fishermen arrived at off-reservation lakes, they met hostile crowds with signs like "Save a walleye, spear an Indian" and taunts of "timber nigger!" Violence first broke out in 1987 at Butternut Lake in Price County. The fact that over the years it never escalated to killing was due in part to the determined restraint of Indian people.

They were helped by local groups like Citizens for Treaty Rights and by Witness for Non-Violence for Treaty and Rural Rights in Northern Wisconsinóbetter known simply as "the Witness." Taking its cue from Witness for Peace, which was then active in Nicaragua, the Witness recruited and trained hundreds of downstate volunteers who formed a noninvolved but observant presence on lakeshores and in boats whenever confrontation was likely. Although resented by protesters, the witnesses were a calming influence and helped to prevent local law officers from turning their backs on violation of Indian rights. Author Rick Whaley was a key figure in organizing this effort.

The year-by-year narrative is a gripping one and will keep the reader glued to the pages. The deeper value of the book lies in the authors' sense of history and their clear delineation of the social and economic forces with which the issue of treaty rights is interwoven. One is the growing poverty of northern Wisconsin and the desperation of small business owners, marginal farmers, and jobless workers. Another is the none-too-subtle effort of conservative politicians and their media friends to turn the anger of these people against their even poorer Indian neighbors by equating treaty rights with special privileges. Looming in the background is the shadow of multinational mining corporations that have long had plans for the rich deposits of copper, nickel, zinc, and other minerals beneath the area's lakes and pines. Indian treaty rights and Indian love for the earth lie squarely across their path.

It is one piece in the worldwide pattern of resistance by indigenous peoples. As Bresette told the national Green conference at Boulder in 1990: "...the same story you have heard at Big Mountain. It's the same story that is going on now at Oka [Quebec]. It's the same story that's going on all over this globe. . . . We are all Mohawks."

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