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

Water clarity, dwindling fish count, invasive species and other threats are of grave concern to all — and should not become the pretext for attacking tribal rights.

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.

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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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