A Wisconsin family is frustrated by the slow speed of prosecution for a suspected harassment incident against them in April while they were spearfishing as tribal citizens in Minnesota.
Melvin Buckholtz and his family, who are citizens of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Nation in Wisconsin, were spearfishing on Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota on April 10 when they reported to police they were being harassed by people from a residence on shore who, Buckholtz claimed, were yelling at them, throwing rocks and threatening to shoot them.
Buckholtz said many Ojibwe citizens from Wisconsin travel to Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota during the spearfishing season because it’s a large lake and they can reach their quotas over a weekend.
He provided the Press-Gazette with a copy of the police incident report, in which a deputy described what she saw in a video of the encounter.
She said multiple people are seen on shore, with some of them yelling profanities at the spearfishers.
“Another male calls out ‘hey, 762 let’s test out how accurate the AK is,'” the deputy reported. “A male voice again talks about shooting targets at 300 meters and yells, ‘let’s see how it goes.’”
Buckholtz said he was in the boat with his 13- and 17-year-old sons. He said his 13-year-old laid inside the boat the rest of the night for fear of being shot at.
“My 13-year-old was terrified,” he said. “He had gotten down and didn’t want to spear the rest of the night.”
Buckholtz also provided the video evidence to the Press-Gazette, which appears to show people from a residence on shore yelling profanities at them for several minutes, as well as trying to provoke the spearfishers into a confrontation.
One male voice is heard in the video saying, “I’ll [expletive] take you guys out, right now.”
Buckholtz also told police that someone yelled to them “[expletive] Indians” and “killing all our fish,” and another told them they shouldn’t be out there.
Buckholtz said the rest of the spearfishing nights were without incident.
The suspects listed in the incident report are a 22-year-old man from Lino Lakes, Minnesota, and a 54-year-old woman from Andover, Minnesota.
A deputy with the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office forwarded a list of offenses for possible charges to the state’s attorney’s office. Mille Lacs County State’s Attorney Joe Walsh said charges have yet to be filed and the case is still being investigated.
Walsh said the case was initially forwarded to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office for review, which then returned the case to Mille Lacs County in mid-June.
“It doesn’t seem like they’re considering it a hate crime because the people at the house claim it was a peaceful protest,” Buckholtz said.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment by the Press-Gazette.
Ojibwe spearfishers practicing their rights are protected under U.S. and tribal law through treaties, which allow them to hunt, fish and gather off-reservation in much of the Minnesota and Wisconsin northwoods, or the Ceded Territory, in exchange for the U.S. taking their land.
Spearfishers often harvest in the weeks before the regular fishing season opens in lakes closely monitored for fish population health by the states’ departments of natural resources. Quotas for harvest amounts are strictly monitored.
Federal court affirmation of tribal spearfishing rights initially led to large protests by non-Indigenous people that mostly ended about 30 years ago. Many of those protests escalated to rock-throwing, gunshots, death threats, and racial and sexual taunts.
Officials with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and other tribal officials and citizens say harassment incidents against tribal spearfishers occur every year, but many go unreported because of limited prosecution.
Last year in Wisconsin, a harassment incident involved a man on shore firing a gun near tribal spearfishers on Little St. Germain Lake in Vilas County.
James Kelsey, 62, pleaded no contest to using a gun while intoxicated and served no jail time but was ordered by a Vilas County judge to pay a $343.50 fine earlier this year, to the ire and frustration of tribal citizens and their supporters who protested outside the courthouse.
Vilas County District Attorney Martha Milanowski said hate crime and use of a dangerous weapon charge modifiers were dropped because Kelsey pleaded no contest to possessing a firearm while intoxicated and interfering with tribal fishing rights, which is a DNR violation.
Since 1989, the total tribal harvest of walleye in the Ceded Territory averaged about 28,000 per year, according to a joint tribal, state and federal report.
By comparison, the non-tribal harvest of walleye in 2018 was reportedly about 181,000.
Tribal hatcheries on reservations produced more than 15 million walleye eggs in 2018, of which more than 121,000 reached a size that could be released into northwoods lakes.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or email@example.com, or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.