Introduction

In the early 1960's several Native American communities began to consider the possibility of using legal action to put forward commercial fishing rights they believed guaranteed them by nineteenth century treaties. Asserting these rights proved highly controversial. The court cases begun to adjudicate the issues took many years to resolve. As these cases slowly moved through the courts, political leaders and white public sentiment often was strongly opposed to Native American claims.

Political Environment

Despite early defeats in the state courts and several precedent setting decisions by the federal courts that suggested the state would have difficulty winning a federal case over treaty fishing, the state claimed sovereignty over the fishery. State officials, including Governor William Milliken and Attorney General Frank Kelley, stated strong opposition to Native American commercial fishing. State employees, particularly from the Department of Natural Resources, occasionally described Native American commercial fishers as greedy anti-conservationists. DNR officials were particularly critical of the tribal fishers continued use of gill nets. Local law officials and district courts continued to enforce Michigan law. The Emmet County prosecutor's office was particularly vigorous in seeking to prosecute fishermen of the Bay Mills Chippewa community. Although the Emmet County prosecutor eventually lessened his pressure, other county prosecutors picked up where he had stopped. For at least a decade the legal situation was, at best, confusing.

Sport fishing publications often were sharply critical of Native American treaty claims and commercial fishing activity. Outdoor Life's 1979 guide, Fishing in the Midwest, included an article entitled "Their Taking Your Fish." The article asserted that Indian fishers had been wrongly granted "superior rights" by the courts. It scoffed at Native American community's self-imposed fishing regulations as outdated and poorly or completely unenforced. "The Indians promise self-regulation, but they practice destruction" stated the article. Claiming that economic and ecological disaster would flow from Indian commercial fishing and having little hope that the Courts would reverse themselves, the article asked for support for two pieces of pending congressional legislation. The proposed laws would annul all Indian fishing and hunting rights and restore state regulatory control over Native Americans acting outside of specified reservations.

Although Indian self-regulation of commercial fishing was frequently denigrated by some whites, Indian communities did impose their own regulations over fishing. These rules often paralleled those established by the state with two important and controversial distinctions. Unlike state regulations, Indian rules allowed gill nets to be used. The Native American fishing rules also allowed fishers to retain lake trout and other fish caught "incidentally" in gill nets, rather than requiring them to throw the dead fish back into the water, as did state regulation. Tribal governments, however, often had difficulty enforcing their regulations.

At the time many tribal fishers used sixteen to twenty foot boats powered by outboard motors. Easily towed on a trailer, these light boats can be launched by two people across almost any beach and three individuals can usually launch such a boat from almost anywhere the road happens to approach the water. Even well trained tribal police found it difficult to patrol the enormous area of open water where such boats could be launched. Given the difficulty of enforcement it was not surprising that some Indian fishers, like some white fishers, bent or broke the rules. Anecdotal tales of illegal or quasi-legal Indian fishing regularly circulated. Whether based on fact or imagination, the stories further inflamed conditions.

Gossip, inflammatory statements by public officials, and a sometimes very biased print media all created an escalating spiral of increasing White protest. As anger escalated these protests sometimes changed from speech and political advocacy to intimidation and violence. John Alexander, a commercial fisher and an Odawa Indian, recalled that logs or rocks frequently were used to block his access to boat ramps. Nails were dropped to flatten the tires of his truck and trailer. Occasionally sand was poured into the gas tank of his truck. White boaters would sometimes attempt to swamp his fishing boat. In one instance rifle shots were fired at him and his boat.

Two groups, the Stop Gill Netting Association (SGN) and the Grand Traverse Area Sport Fishing Association (GTASFA) were particularly active in protesting Native American commercial fishing activity. Drawing members primarily from the Euro-American community living in the northwest corner of the state's lower peninsula, both groups issued inflammatory statements that some viewed as tinted with racism. In 1979 the Traverse City Record Eagle editorially denounced the SGN in particular as a racist organization. Both organizations bitterly denied these charges, arguing that their principal concern was preserving sports fishing opportunities against the potential devastation to the fishery that might be caused by commercial fishing.