Great Lakes Native Culture & Language The Ways

Story Location Hayward, WI

Tribe Lac Courte Oreilles

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  1. Does history repeat itself? Are their current conflicts surrounding spearfishing and Native treaty rights in the central Great Lakes region?

  2. Why is it important for the Lac Courte Orielles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe to continue spearfishing?

  3. If you fish or members of your community fish, how are your traditions similar or different from Jason Bisonette? Do you or members of your community fish for similar reasons?


  1. Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) Harvest Regulations

  2. Lighting the 7th Fire - 10 min clip from the documentary on the spearfishing conflict in the late 1980's.

Jason Bisonette, an Ojibwe of Odaawaazaga’igan and Marine Corps veteran, is a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. While he believes that a mainstream education is necessary for success today, he also feels strongly that Ojibwe education is what his community needs to survive as a people. Jason believes that the Ojibwe need to be culturally tied to the land, speak their language and practice their spirituality in order to remain a strong sovereign nation.

The Lac Courte Oreilles reservation is one of many small land areas (about 70,000 acres) that remain of the once vast territory of the Ojibwe in what is now the United States and Canada. The Ojibwe occupied and resided in lands from Niagara Falls to the Northern Great Plains and on both sides of the central Great Lakes region. During the period of United States expansion, military aggression and coercion reduced this land through warfare and treaties. Modern reservations such as Lac Courte Oreilles are all that remain of recognized Ojibwe territory. However, Ojibwe sovereign nation rights are not confined to the reservations. Larger land areas that were ceded to the U.S. federal government through 19th century treaties are still under partial jurisdiction of tribal governments. The Ojibwe have legally retained hunting, fishing, and gathering rights since the signing of the land treaties in 1837 and 1842. But racial discrimination, cultural oppression and extrajudicial action by the State of Wisconsin caused these off-reservation rights to be ignored for more than a century.

A court ruling in 1983 reaffirming the right of Lake Superior Ojibwe to exercise their rights to hunt, fish, and gather off-reservation in the ceded territory sparked an eruption of violent protests by residents and groups of northern Wisconsin. Ojibwe spearfishing became the scapegoat for economic recession and its erosion of established white northwoods culture. Rock throwing, sexual and racial taunts, gunshots, assassination threats against tribal judges, and boat rammings became common occurrences at northwoods boat landings.  The protests began to dissipate in 1991 after both the tribes and the State of Wisconsin agreed to no further legal appeals, and a joint federal, state, and tribal fishery assessment concluded that tribal spearing did not harm the recreational and sport fishing population.

Today, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), representing eleven Ojibwe bands with treaty rights in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, assists in implementing off-reservation harvests and enforcing tribally adopted regulatory codes.Tribal fishermen identify a safe harvest limit on a lake in order to protect its fishery for future generations. They make a declaration, called a quota, that specifies the amount of fish that each band can harvest from a specific lake in the ceded territory. The quota is divided by the number of permits issued each night to determine the bag limit, the number of fish each tribal fisherman can take. Once at a designated lake, tribal fishermen are required to present their tribal identification card and are issued permits for the appropriate limit.

These regulations support the tradition of spearfishing for the Ojibwe. As winter draws to a close in northern Wisconsin, the lakes are no longer closed up with thick sheets of ice. When the sun falls over the horizon, Ojibwe spearfishers and their families may be seen on boats, gliding along the shoreline. Their headlamps cast out light into the shallow waters, illuminating the eyes of the Ogaa (Walleye Pike) fish.

Exclamations of excitement, in Ojibwe and English, accompany a sudden thrashing, followed by the sound of fish tossing their bodies about the bottom of the boat. Praise, encouragement and a bit of jest are meant to help everyone in the boat achieve the same goal: to secure food for survival. Fish in the boat means food on the table, or food to be given to elders and those who are unable to fish. It means a meal of traditional Ojibwe sustenance for the whole community.

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