Sault Tribe files appeal to 2023 Great Lakes Fishing Decree, says treaty rights were violated •

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians on Wednesday announced that it had filed its opening brief in an appeal of the 2023 Great Lakes Fishing Decree, arguing the decree violated their treaty rights and that the tribe had been excluded from negotiations. 

The 2023 decree — which was signed by the Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in agreement with the state and federal government — took effect in March, after it was approved by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan on Aug. 24, 2023.

As a signatory of the 1836 Treaty of Washington — in which the Anishinaabeg ceded nearly 14 million acres of land to the United States — the Sault Tribe is guaranteed the right to hunt, fish and gather to meet its needs, Austin Lowes, chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said during a Wednesday press conference. 

Four tribes in Michigan sign new fishing rights agreement with state, feds

The 2023 agreement will dictate the allocation, management and regulation of fishing in 1836 Treaty Waters for the next 24 years. The previous agreement was approved in 2000, with the first decree approved in 1985.

When U.S. District Court Judge Paul Maloney approved the 2023 decree, he did so after the Sault tribe had been locked out of negotiations, violating their tribal sovereignty and right to due process, Lowes said. 

The Sault Tribe’s attorney, Ryan Mills, said members received a letter from the U.S. Western District Court of Michigan in August 2022, that negotiations on the fishing decree — which was set to expire in 2020 but was extended for negotiations — would continue without the Sault Tribe. 

“We sent multiple emails to the court and to those parties saying that was inappropriate, we’re a necessary party. We need to be at the table. Unfortunately, we were never let back into that table,” Mills said.

Negotiations on this decree were challenging due to a number of reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to many negotiations being conducted over Zoom calls and email, Mills said, later noting he was not personally involved in the negotiations. 

While the Sault Tribe requested a trial to argue its side of the decree and how it could better protect treaty rights, the decree was approved without allowing for the presentation of vital testimony and evidence, Mills said. 

“It’s really a disservice to not only the Sault Tribe, but all the tribes involved in this decree,” Mills said. “We see this initial decree in 1985, the decree in 2000 and now the 2023 decree, each one chips away a little bit more at the tribal sovereignty of these nations,” Mills said. 

“Every decree has chipped away at the species, the amount of fish you can take and the areas where you can fish so that original treaty is getting less powerful as we go on,” Mills said.

At the beginning of the press call, Lowes highlighted the size of the Sault Tribe and its prominence in tribal commercial and subsistence fishing.

“The Sault Tribe has 55,000 members in Michigan and across the country, which makes us the largest federally recognized tribe east of the Mississippi River. The Sault Tribe has engaged in respectful and robust commercial and subsistence fishing in the Great Lakes since time immemorial. It’s not only how we feed our people, but it’s also how we make a living,” Lowes said. 

“Sault Tribe members represent the largest share of tribal, commercial and subsistence fishing in the state, and by a large margin. In fact, if you eat whitefish in a restaurant or from a grocery store in Michigan, there’s a good chance that a Sault Tribe fisherman caught that fish,” Lowes said, noting the tribe also performs sustainable fisheries management, analyzing the health and number of fish caught, estimating how many fish are available for harvest each year and monitoring for invasive species.

Lowes said the current decree falls short of the needs of the Sault Tribe’s members.

“This decree does not allow us to fish in all the water that we’ve ceded to allow Michigan to become a state. Certain waters are designated as exclusive zones for certain tribes, other areas we just flat-out can’t fish,” Lowes said. 

“One of those areas is essentially in the backyard of several of our fishermen. How insulting is that? We ceded 14 million acres of land, water, right? And our fishermen in their very backyard cannot fish there commercially. They have to load up their boat and drive it down the highway to fish in a different place that the state of Michigan says that we can fish,” Lowes said. 

Lowes and Mills both objected to reporting requirements put in place by the new decree with Mills calling them “onerous” and noting their subsistence fishermen were required to do more reporting than in the past, with tribal fishers facing much stricter requirements than state recreational and commercial fishers.

Austin Lowes | Courtesy photo

Lowes called some of the decree’s requirements insulting, saying they treated the Sault Tribe as a second-class government to the state of Michigan. 

“We’re a sovereign nation and we enjoy a government to government relationship with the federal government and the state of Michigan.” Lowes said. 

“To have to report what we’re catching to the state of Michigan as if we’re a constituent to them is absolutely preposterous. We’re on an equal playing field with them. To let them know where our fishermen are catching fishes is equally insulting, so it’s just not something that’s going to work for us. We’re going to fight for our treaty rights,” Lowes said.

Mills said Sault Tribe fishers are following the 2023 decree. 

While the Advance contacted counsel for the Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, as well as the state of Michigan, only David A. Giampetroni, the attorney representing the Little River Band, responded before publication, saying the band had no comment at this point. 



authored by Kyle Davidson
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