For members of the Lake Superior bands of Anishinaabe, the upcoming spring spearing season is more than a chance to harvest fish to fill their freezer and make a meal or two.
"It's not just the ability to get something to eat, to sustain our bodies. It's about sustaining our identity," said Jason Schlender, vice chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Governing Board.
Schlender joined tribal officials, elders and others Thursday at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth for a public forum to talk about the biology, management, history and practices of tribal off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering. The bands reserved the rights to spear fish, tap maple trees, gather wild rice, hunt deer and more under treaties signed with the U.S. government in 1837, 1842 and 1854 that cover much of northern Wisconsin and northern and central Minnesota.
Those rights were upheld by federal court decisions in the 1980s and '90s, and tribal members continue to exercise those rights each year - including spearing spawning walleyes soon after the ice goes out of Northland lakes.
"I'm a beneficiary of very wise, gifted visionaries," Schlender said, speaking of his ancestors who signed the treaties.
"Imagine if someone told you that, if you go out and gather something, you will be given life," said Bradley Harrington, natural resources commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band. "We aren't killing a fish to eat. We have a cultural, spiritual contract with that fish."
Marvin DeFoe, a Red Cliff tribal elder, said fishing is part of his clan's very being.
"Fish have been our whole life at Red Cliff," he said, noting he will soon take trout and other fish out of local lakes and streams to sustain his extended family.
"I'm not fishing for me. I'm fishing for my community, my family," DeFoe said.
Schlender and others talked about introducing spearing and other activities to their children.
"Now I drive the boat" while his sons spear, Schlender said.
But tribal leaders conceded they are facing similar issues as the non-Indian community in 2019 where fewer younger people are pursuing traditional outdoor activities. That makes it harder to pass on the traditions, and the spirituality, of outdoor endeavors like spearing.
"We're having a hard time passing it on," Schlender said. "We're competing with McDonald's and Walmart with their fast food and technology."
Schlender said tribal leaders need to stress the ceremonial aspects of exercising treaty rights without forcing the issue and then hope that, when tribal members grow out of their teens, they will understand why they need to appreciate the traditions and take part.
''It's a big concern," said Kevin DuPuis, Fond du Lac tribal council chairman. "It's something we talk about at nearly every (tribal government) meeting."
Biologists from both the Fond du Lac Band and Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commision talked about the extensive efforts that track all fish speared or netted by tribal members. Each fish is surveyed for length, weight, sex and age to gather data on the health of local fisheries - from giant Mille Lacs Lake to tiny Tait Lake in Cook County.
The bands also conduct fish population surveys on lakes across the ceded territories.
"No one else does that kind of documentation on every single fish," DuPuis siad, noting that tribal creel surveys show 82 percent of all fish speared are small males as band members selectively avoid larger females to spawn and grow the population.