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For Ojibwe, Lake Mille Lacs is a way of life — not just a fishery

Lake Mille Lacs is a foundational element for our regional economy, but for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe it is more than that; it is our way of life.

Hundreds of years ago, our Anishinabeg ancestors began a migration from the northeast. They were guided by a vision and were told to follow a trail of sacred shells until they came to a place where the food grew on the water. When they found manoomin (wild rice), their journey was over. This is how the ancestors of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe came to settle around Lake Mille Lacs and the east-central Minnesota region.

Melanie Benjamin

Lake Mille Lacs is a foundational element for our regional economy, but for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe it is more than that; it is our way of life. Lake Mille Lacs is inseparable from our culture, our spirituality and our very identity as a Band. The ogaa (walleye) were given to us by the Creator, and we take our responsibility to preserve and protect the ogaa and other resources very seriously.

Most people do not know or understand that Lake Mille Lacs is a shared resource and its fishery is co-managed by the Minnesota DNR, the Mille Lacs Band DNR, the Fond du Lac Band DNR and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. We work together to understand the health and size of the walleye biomass, and we jointly agree on a safe harvest limit.

Over the past few years the walleye population in Lake Mille Lacs has been in decline and has caused many to worry about the future of the lake. Tribal and state biologists, resort owners and the general public have been presented with a number of complex factors that are taking a toll on the lake’s walleye population, including changing water clarity levels due to aquatic invasive species (such as zebra mussels and milfoil) and other changes that have apparently been brought on by climate change. Almost everyone agrees that Lake Mille Lacs’ current ecological issues require immediate attention.

Next seven generations

The health of the lake is of grave concern to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. We look beyond the resource as it exists today, and instead take the approach and responsibility of preservation that considers the next seven generations. Regardless of the method of catch, we must continue to jointly agree that we can only remove a set amount of walleye from the lake. The safe harvest allocations agreed to by the state and tribes is a ceiling, but tribes have not harvested our full allocation for many years. We believe a fish only becomes ours when it is harvested, and we make sure we do not exceed our agreed upon allocation.

Unfortunately, some have used the lake’s complex ecological issues as an excuse to once again attack tribal harvesting rights. While we respect the right of those who disagree with tribal harvesting methods to express their opinion, it is grossly disrespectful to use Ojibwe traditional gathering methods, heritage, and way of life as the scapegoat for the plethora of reasons surrounding the lake’s decline.

For more nearly 300 years, Ojibwe people have been harvesting fish, game and rice in and around Lake Mille Lacs in a respectful and conscientious manner. For more than 150 years, land around Lake Mille Lacs has been bought and sold, with one exception: The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s trust land can never be sold, and never will be. Others will come and go, but 500 years from now, we will still be here. When it comes to protecting the environment and natural resources, no one cares more about the lake than we do. 

A partnership is vital

As we work in partnership to understand what is happening to the lake and the fishery, we should all keep in mind that Lake Mille Lacs has more to offer visitors than just the walleye. As the owners of Eddy’s Resort, we have been promoting the ample opportunity to land trophy northern and small mouth bass. The lake is also excellent for other water pursuits, such as kite surfing, sailing, boating and personal watercraft. We believe in the lake and region’s future. That’s why we’re building a modern, world-class resort on the current Eddy’s Resort location.

Likewise, other local resort owners who have invested in connecting tourists with this wider range of recreational experiences are already seeing a return on their investment. The Mille Lacs Band and its business arm, Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, are working with the Mille Lacs Tourism Council, Explore Minnesota and other committed parties to help the region as a whole transform tourism in a way that ensures our mutual success.

We are convinced the walleye population will return, but in the meantime we’re all in this together. To secure a vibrant economy for the next seven generations, it is vital that we work together to diversify our economy and showcase the countless reasons why the Lake Mille Lacs region is and always will be the crown jewel of Minnesota’s northland.

Melanie Benjamin is chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

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Comments (3)

Chief Benjamin is as well spoken as always

Having had the privilege of working for the predecessor of the Mille Lacs Band of Ventures for 10 years and prior to that on water issues with that concerned the Mille Lacs Band and the Corps of Engineers for 15 years prior to that time I can tell you this is not a PR piece.

In those 25 years I have heard the same concern for the lake from every Band member that lives in the Mille Lacs Band Districts that are near the lake.

I can only compare it to perhaps the feeling of most tribes and also the Israeli's; they have the benefit and burden of knowing that they are in the place on earth they are meant to be. The Band will do what it takes to protect the resources.

Now if they would only add historic touring to their tourist attractions and serious birding that would be great.

Hopefully the birders will catch on that in the spring with the eagles feasting on the lake ice Eddy's should be the headquarters for great birding adventures.

Good Neighbors

We've owned a cabin on Mille Lacs for 22 years. The band has always been a good partner in stewardship of this magnificent lake. Melanie's predecessor Marge Anderson was a strong proponent of returning casino profits to the community in the form of infrastructure investments, including a large modern septic system, and college scholarships.

We've also been impressed by the way the band has been patient with the few people who want to blame them for everything that goes wrong in the area, and those who tried to overturn the 1837 treaty (eventually validated by the US Supreme Court). We're lucky to have such neighbors.

Distorted History

"Hundreds of years ago, our Anishinabeg ancestors began a migration from the northeast. They were guided by a vision and were told to follow a trail of sacred shells until they came to a place where the food grew on the water. When they found manoomin (wild rice), their journey was over. This is how the ancestors of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe came to settle around Lake Mille Lacs and the east-central Minnesota region."

This is certainly a great story but that vision they were guided by were the French who forced them from the Ojibwe's east coast homeland. In a History Of The Dakota People In The Mille Lacs Area by Thomas Dahlheimer he states: "They traveled west to escape the White civilization. They went west on the Saint Lawrence River, then across the great lakes to the southern tip of Lake Superior where they settled and then made frequent peaceful journeys to the Dakota's Wakan/Mille Lacs Lake homeland villages. The Dakota Sioux were the original inhabitants of the Mille Lacs area.

The French then instigated fights between this band of Ojibwe (now known as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe) and the Mille Lacs Lake Dakota. The final Mille Lacs Lake area Ojibwe/Dakota "fight" occurred around 1750. The Ojibwe used French guns and gun powder to force the Dakota from their Mille Lacs Lake homeland. The Ojibwe then, temporarily, took possession of the Dakota's stolen Mille Lacs Lake homeland. Later, many white "settlers"/invaders entered into the area and took possession of the Dakota's stolen Mille Lacs Lake homeland. The area's Ojibwe were then given some of the white people's Mille Lacs Lake area stolen Dakota land to live on and have some "treaty" rights too. The white people forced the area's Ojibwe (red pagans) to live in a subjugated state of existence. "

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe were pawns of the French to remove the Dakota Sioux from their homeland by arming the Ojibwe with modern firearms of the time.