U.S. vs Michigan The Settlement

Although the judge's ruling established the legality of the Native American claim, he left the practical issues involved in enforcing his rulings to be worked out between the state and the various tribal communities. In 1979 and 1980 talks between the two sides led nowhere. Delay may have well served the state's interests. In 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, seeking Michigan votes, weighed into the Native American fishing controversy with a widely publicized letter that stated that as president, he would "recognize and support the traditional precedence of the states to manage fish, wildlife and habitat within their boundaries." More pointedly Reagan's campaign spokesperson for conservation issues declared him "the candidate for the outdoor sportsmen." Although never explicitly addressing the specific issues at stake in U.S. v. Michigan Reagan's campaign statements clearly gave comfort to the sports fishing viewpoint.

With Ronald Reagan's election, Native American negotiators felt their position weaken while the state and sports fishers were emboldened. Because they feared the courts would continue to side with the tribes, the state and attorneys representing sport fishing interests both pushed for a negotiated settlement that would maximize the impact of the political situation. The Department of the Interior in May 1981 entered the stalled negotiations and offered a compromise that involved dividing the lakes into zones. Although the specific compromise proposed was not accepted the general idea of creating zones of interest laid the basis for eventual settlement.

In 1983, with no out-of-court settlement in hand, all parties found themselves before the judge. The situation was difficult, however, in that there were no clear legal precedents that any of the parties could use in arguing a case nor for the judge to base a ruling. Equally important Native American solidarity had been broken when the Grand Traverse Odawa Band staked out a position different from the Lake Superior Chippewa. The Court, faced with a difficult situation and no clear legal path to follow, chose to try to resolve the matter by appointing a special negotiator to work with the various parties. Within six months of the special negotiator's appointment, an agreement was reached.

Signed on March 29, 1985 and dubbed the Sault Ste. Marie agreement, the settlement divided the lakes into zones. Generally speaking the state, on behalf of sports fishing interests, dominated the southern zone while Native American communities and their commercial fishing interests dominated Lake Superior. Indian commercial fishing interests also gained control of a small foothold on the north shore of Lakes Michigan and Huron, being granted access to waters near Bays de Noc and the Les Cheneaux Islands and a very small area off Leelenau county. A maximum catch was defined, for example 6.8 million pounds of whitefish in 1985. To make this agreement more palatable to Native Americans, it also included agreements by the state and federal government to create a trust fund that would pay approximately $6.2 million to the tribes over a fifteen year period for Indian fishery development.

The agreement received very mixed reviews. The Bay Mills Chippewa community, which lost in the agreement two productive fishing grounds and gained little in return, was particularly hostile to the compromise. It voted to reject the agreement and eventually proposed an alternative settlement that took all parties back to court. Bay Mills essentially based its case on the claim that the agreement unfairly discriminated against small-scale commercial fishers in favor of large-scale operations. All parties to the suit, including the other Native American tribes involved, opposed the Bay Mills plan in favor of the Sault Ste. Marie agreement. After a brief trial the Court ordered that the Sault Ste. Marie agreement be put in place. The agreement retains the force of law until the year 2000.