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As ice finally leaves the last of Wisconsin’s lakes and sports fisherman make their final preparations for the opening of the fishing season this weekend, I think it’s important for them to take some time to remember who they’ll be sharing the water with.  The following is the first of a three part reflection on Ojibwe spearing and the importance, tradition, and future of walleye spearing in their culture.

The throbbing cadence of tribal drums blaring over Justin Schlender’s speakers drowned out the rest of rush hour’s traffic.  The rise and fall of the traditional native chants offered a stark contrast to the usual bass beats and techno that bump out of downtown subwoofers. At first, I couldn’t help but to find it ironic. Here, in downtown Madison, who would imagine that Ojibwe music would be causing all this ruckus? After all, aren’t the Native Americans supposed to be the quiet, reserved ones?

But after sitting down with Schlender for a few hours I realized that those thumping drum beats weren’t noise pollution, at all. They were a reminder. Now, even hundreds of years after European encroachment on Indian lands, Wisconsin’s native American tribes are still here–still going strong in their traditions—and won’t easily be forgotten.

The struggle

The Ojibwe have always been spearers. It’s a tradition that’s nearly as deep-rooted as the wild rice that brought them to the land that would become Wisconsin.

Justin Schlender, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles band of the Ojibwe, has a long history with walleye spearing. It was, after all, his father, Jim Schlender, former head of GLIFWC (Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission), who locked horns in the ‘80s and 90’s with the state and the DNR in order to ensure that spearing rights were recognized.

“Spearing has always been in our blood,” Justin Schlender says. “When the Europeans first came over long ago, they saw us out on the waters in our canoes. It was night time and we had baskets of flame hanging out over the canoe bows. Burning bright, they lit the waters, guiding our spearing ancestors to the walleye. Thus, the French called it Lac Du Flambeau–Lake of the Torches.”

Since the time the first French settlers met the Ojibwe people, much has changed. More and more Europeans settled the area, the United States won its independence from Britain, and the lands of the Ojibwe began looking more and more desirable to the fledgling country.

Under pressure from the United States, the Ojibwe signed the Treaties of 1837 1842 to cede large tracts of land to the United States government in order to bolster a growing American timber industry. With great foresight, though, the Ojibwe leaders who signed these treaties made sure to retain the right to hunt, fish, and gather in ceded territory. This, they hoped, would ensure the survival of their descendents.

But while the Treaties of 1837 and 1842 represented the supreme laws of the land—a binding promise between the federal government and the Ojibwe—state law and DNR officers began dismissing the importance of treaty rights. Ignoring the rights guaranteed by the federal government, law enforcement and the WDNR began restricting and prosecuting any Ojibwe who speared or violated state resident fishing regulations. When the state of Wisconsin was created, they claimed, the Ojibwe lost the right to spear in ceded territory.

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