Indian rights protected by respect for law

The United States Supreme Court voted 5-4 last week to uphold the hunting and fishing rights granted to Chippewa bands more than 150 years ago. This resolution of a nine-year legal battle points the way for both supporters and opponents of the differential treatment of Native Americans to find resolution of their problems in a way that will be fair to everyone.
The case focused on the original treaty, a presidential order by Zachary Taylor, an 1855 treaty and the statehood of Minnesota in 1858. In 1837, the leaders of a dozen Chippewa bands agreed to cede more than 11 million acres in what would become Minnesota and Wisconsin to the United States government in return for, among other things, $9,500, $5 in tobacco and “the privilege of hunting, fishing and gathering … during the pleasure of the President of the United States.”
President Taylor did not possess this pleasure and rescinded the hunting and fishing rights in 1850. In 1990, the Mille Lacs band, seeking to preserve its cultural identity, was forced to fight for the rights set out in the treaty by suing Minnesota. By 1993, the Fond du Lac band had joined the plaintiffs, while nine counties, as well as land owners of Lake Mille Lacs, joined the state as defendants, arguing the state had the right to regulate Chippewa activities on the land in light of Taylor’s executive order. Last week the Supreme Court settled the matter by stating that the majority opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was that President Taylor’s executive order was not authorized by federal law.
Activists have frequently argued that Native Americans cannot receive equitable treatment in federal courts founded on a concept of land ownership; a fundamental philosophy Native Americans do not share. This recent decision shows that their worries were misplaced. United States courts will stand by past agreements and treaties whether or not they are currently popular. Native American groups need not fear them. Rather, Native Americans must exercise their legal rights and demand the support of the government when they have legitimate claims.
Likewise, groups that have opposed separate rights for Native Americans must stand by agreements that do in fact grant differential treatment. They should not focus on the concept of preservation of a unique culture. Instead they should ask what we and our ancestors have committed to, and then live up to those obligations. By fulfilling our duties, we demonstrate respect and we peacefully settle our disputes.
Last November, Minnesota voters passed an amendment to the state constitution making hunting and fishing a “valued part of our heritage (to be) forever preserved for the people.” The Chippewa are among “the people,” and hunting and fishing are more a part of their heritage than of any other Minnesotan’s. If our multicultural society is to survive, we must have mutual respect and a shared recognition that the buck must stop somewhere. In the United States, it stops at the Supreme Court, and we must stand behind its rulings. In the end, the fish will not disappear from Lake Mille Lacs and the tourists will not stop visiting the area. This peaceful resolution shows that we can settle cultural disputes reasonably.