Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991
Oscar F. Hernandez
THE EVENING OF May 2 marked the closing of the 1991 Anishinabe (Chippewa) spring spearfishing season. At the invitation of Anishinabe spearers and their families, the Witness for Nonviolence, a project of the Midwest Treaty Network, has been documenting harassment, threats and violence against the Anishinabe during spring spearfishing for the last four years. This year, hundreds of witnesses from the local area and from all over Wisconsin, as well as Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Canada and Germany, have been present at northern Wisconsin lakes.
Spearing was one of the rights retained by the Lake Superior Anishinabe when they ceded their lands (the northern third of Wisconsin, most of the upper peninsula of Michigan and the northeastern portion of Minnesota) to the United States in treaties of 1837, 1842 and 1854. These treaty rights were reaffirmed in Federal Court in 1974, after the Tribble brothers from the Lac Court Oreilles Reservation in northern Wisconsin were arrested for off-reservation fishing.
For the native people of northern Wisconsin, spearfishing is both a source of food and an affirmation of their culture. But the revival of the off-reservation harvest of fish, deer and wild rice has led to complaints and attacks by some non-indigenous local residents. Protect America’s Rights and Resources (PARR) and Stop Treaty Abuse (STA) have organized protests at boat landings during spear-fishing season, which has led many observers to compare northern Wisconsin of 1990 to Alabama of 1960 and Boston of the 1970s’ anti-busing riots.
A recent Wisconsin State Journal poll, however, shows that forty-two percent of northern Wisconsinites and fifty-nine percent of southern Wisconsinites now support the treaties. A much larger percentage are opposed to the boat landing protests. The number of protesters during most nights of fishing was smaller than in previous years.
In response to the protests and attacks, some Anishinabe from the Lac du Flambeau Reservation have organized themselves under the Wa-Swa-Con Treaty Association Wa-Swa-Con comes from the Anishinabe name for “people of torches.” Spearfishing takes place after dark, and before the advent of battery powered lamps, torches were used to IIluminate the shallows where the male walleye await the spawning females.
With the exception of Sand and Dam Lake, Anishinabe and witnesses together outnumbered the protesters at the boat landings. The protest movement is dying. However, as witness spokesperson Jean Bonnet remarked, “the hard core that remains is far more virulent in its racist, abusive and threatening language.”
Besides abusive language, shots have been fired and rocks thrown at spearers. These attacks have occurred in more isolated locations where treaty supporters, media and law enforcement were not present.
Racists At Work
As the number of violent incidents subside, the media has begun to lose interest. This has taken the pressure off state politicians and led some spearers and their supporters to fear that all law enforcement will be withdrawn from the boat landings next year, a situation they feel could increase the level of violence against the Anishinabe.
Already Republican Governor Tommy Thompson has commented that there have been “no scenes comparable to the ugly scenes of previous spearfishing seasons. Al Shanks, from the Division of Emergency Government and State Department of Military Affairs said, “I think it is almost to the point where it could be handled on the local level as far as law enforcement goes.
The events of April 20, at the boat landing to Sand and Dam Lakes in Oneida County (northern Wisconsin) show those very ugly scenes can still erupt at any time. That evening, six witnesses and one supporter went to document a protest of about 250 people at the request of a spearing family there.
When witnesses arrived at Sand and Dam shortly after 8:00 PM, they stayed close to the police lines and tried to avoid protesters, who were very vocal and very aggressive. A protest organizer used a bull horn to yell at a spearer, “Spearing sucks and so do you,” and then addressed the crowd in reference to Tom Maulson, a well-known spearer and Wa-Swa-Gon member, “He’s in New York making a movie, Dances With Elephants, (no) Asses, Asses.”
Protesters swarmed down an adjacent embankment as a spearing boat passed underneath a bridge, booing, cheering, whistling and screaming, “Slaughter them guys, slaughter them!” and “Bullshit! Bullshit!” “you’re disturbing duck nests.” A sign complained of “Wanton wholesale slaughter.”
The spearer’s boat was accompanied by one Department of Natural Resources (DNR) warden’s boat, but none of the police on land made an attempt to control the crowd or prevent them from standing as little as ten feet away from the Anishinabe and DNR boats. Besides the sheriffs from Vilas County, there was a special tactical police unit at the Sand and Dam landing.
Alter the second boat headed out, harassment was directed against Wa-Swa-Gon Treaty Association member Art Koser—who had arrived to stand in solidarity with the spearing family—and then at witnesses.
Mark Zanoni was recognized by the protesters as a local from Eagle River and was videotaped and questioned about his identity and friends. Throughout the evening the protesters gathered in groups and pointed at him and Michelle Ploskonka, another local witness, in order to identify them.
This author was called “fruitcake,” “Commie faggot” and “out of the ’60s.” He was also videotaped by a protester who warned “I wouldn’t get close to the guy with the purple hat; he’s liable to kiss you.” Throughout this time protesters laughed, mocked and pointed out the witnesses while continuing to harass and taunt the Anishinabe spearers’ families. The same protester who had videotaped the witnesses yelled at a guy, “Don, tell the FBI these tree huggers want to talk to him.” He then asked the police, “Is it your job to protect these tree huggers?” The police snickered and walked away.
Intimidation and Hate
At 8:35 PM protest organizer Al Soik, a STA leader, announced on the bullhorn that “the American Indian Movement (AIM) is coming.” The crowd cheered.
At about 9:00 PM, Denise Peterson, an Anishinabe woman, arrived with her two children to stand with the family. They were escorted by Zanoni and the author down to the landing. Upset by the arrival of more Native Americans, the protesters surrounded the three Anishinabe and two witnesses, jostling and taunting them.
The protesters yelled, “Nigger, flicking nigger” at James Mincey, a tall African-American man. According to Denise Peterson, “When they surrounded James and the other witnesses, Dean Crist (the head of STA) and Larry Peterson (the head of PARR) were upon the hill watching with smiles on their faces, laughing back and forth.”
The Minocqua Lakeland Times reported the following week that Dean Crist planned to present all African-American witnesses with a watermelon wrapped in ribbon so they would understand what it felt like to be called a racist.
Mincey requested police assistance but was told, “If we see a violation of the law, we will respond.” When the author pointed out that the continuing racial slurs were a violation of the hate crimes act, the six tactical squad members entered the crowd. Koser commented that “they moved in just long enough to heighten the tension in our area and then moved out again.”
For the next hour, the Anishinabe and witnesses were trapped by the protesters and again subjected to so much verbal abuse that they feared for their safety. During this time the police stayed behind the snow fence with the Anishinabe, while witnesses and protesters gathered together on the other side. Native American game wardens (who are hired by the tribe to monitor the fish speared) were prevented by police from standing near or talking to the Anishinabe women.
The protesters screamed at the Anishinabe: “Go home,” “Spear chuckers,” “Timber niggers,” “Red niggers,” “Legalize abortion for Indians,” “Sweat hogs,” “Whores,” “Parasites,” and “Assholes in Moccasins,” a reference to AIM.
Mincey was taunted with “They’re gonna hafta arrest me, I’m gonna kill him; roast his Black ass good,” “Hey Black boy, where’s your basketball?” “Come with me I’m your master,” “Aunt Jemima is waiting for you, praise the Lord,” “He’s got some big ass lips … good for spitting those watermelon seeds,” and mock ape sounds.
The five white witnesses got their share of “White niggers … there’s the white niggers,” “We love the Indians, we hate you commies.” Barb Seegert, who had brought a tape recorder, was asked if “She got that at the welfare office … or did you steal it or did your kids steal it?”
Ironically, the protesters complained about how they were tired of being called “white trash” and how “this old racist story is getting pretty old.” They insisted that “There’s no racism here, where do you see racism? Nobody’s bothering the Black cameraman up there, but you’re asking for it.” The cameraman and most of the media were having coffee during the worst exchanges of the evening.
At 10.00 PM a group of about 150 Anishinabe and witnesses arrived at Sand and Dam led by a drum. They had left Turtle-Flambeau Flowage earlier at the request of the drummers, who were concerned about the Anishinabe family at Sand and Dam.
Protesters linked arms to keep the group out of the landing, but police opened a narrow cordon to allow the drum through as it was played. Police closed the opening but then reopened a narrow gap for the remaining Anishinabe and witnesses, who walked a gauntlet of screaming and pushing protesters grabbing at them as they passed. Eventually, most protesters left the landing and treaty supporters danced around the drum.
The incident at Sand and Dam demonstrates the reactive rather than preventative approach taken by law enforcement. Art Koser feels that in Vilas and Oneida Counties the protesters control law enforcement. “A while back, a spearer responded [to the racial slurs] by flipping the finger and was arrested … that’s the type of law enforcement we have to deal with.”
The Newest Threat
Now, along with racism, the Anishinabe culture is facing another threat: re-colonization of the ceded territories by mining corporations. According to the Anishinabe statement: “Because one of the Wa-Swa-Gon Treaty Association’s main concerns is protecting the environment, and mining can cause long-lasting environmental devastation, the Wa-Swa-Gon treaty Association cannot permit mining destruction to take place within the ceded territories. We will do what is within our power to preserve and protect Mother Earth for all generations to come…”
It is clear that a sweetheart relationship exists between the Thompson administration and the mining companies. Administration Secretary James Klauser, a top aide for Thompson, is a lobbyist on leave for Exxon and Union Carbide. Both companies have shown an interest in mining the ceded territories. Thompson’s only strategy to deal with the spearfishing conflict was to offer the Lac du Flambeau reservation $25 million and the Mole Lake reservation $10 million in exchange for leasing treaty rights. The Anishinabe voted both offers down.
The Kennecott Corporation (of 1973 Chile fame) has already obtained permits to start mining in Ladysmith 140 feet from the Flambeau river, south of the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation. In order to obtain these permits, the DNR has provided the company with many exemptions to Wisconsin’s environmental and zoning laws.
The struggle to prevent the opening of the Ladysmith mine has brought together environmentalists, treaty supporters, Native Americans and their supporters.
A rally at Noranda headquarters in Toronto was held on April 5 in opposition to that company’s plans to begin mining in the ceded territories, south of the Lac du Flambeau reservation. On the same day, other groups rallied in London, Vienna and Madison, Wisconsin. Current plans include a July 6 action at the Ladysmith mine site.
As Zoltan Grossman of the Madison Treaty Rights Support Group said, “We may have seen Crist’s Last Stand. But the main threat to the treaties has always come from the government and the corporations, not just from anti-Indian zealots.”
For further information, write: Midwest Treaty Network, South/Central Office, 731 State St., Madison WI 53703; Northeast Office, Box 217, Lac du Flambeau WI 54538.
© 2020 Against the Current
July-August 1991, ATC 33