Hundreds of white men and women converged on the boat launches of northern Wisconsin night after night – loud, angry, belligerent and itching for a fight. They carried signs with crudely written slogans like “Save a Walleye. Spear an Indian” and “Spear a pregnant squaw and save two walleye!” Their racial epithets were so vile that they could not be shown on television or spelled out in the local newspapers. And all over the right to go fishing.

For generations the Ojibwe (Chippewa) had engaged in spearfishing on regional waters, an ancient tradition and source of sustenance for Indigenous people. Unfortunately, their traditional methods of harvesting fish were banned outside of current reservation boundaries by state natural resources rules and regulations. By the 1970s, the American Indian Movement (AIM) had risen, leading a wave of ‘Red Power’ activism across the United States, and tribal citizens had become emboldened by these examples. The Wisconsin fishing conflict began in 1973 when two members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of the Ojibwe Nation crossed a reservation boundary that divided Chief Lake, cut a hole in the ice, and harvested fish with spears. This was against the law in Wisconsin. Or was it?

The men were arrested, and a Sawyer County judge convicted them under state poaching laws for fishing out of season. The LCO Band joined in the legal fight on behalf of their tribal members, arguing that 19th century treaties had given them the right to fish and hunt in the ceded territories, even though these were outside the boundaries of the current-day reservations. The U.S. district court confirmed that the treaties of St. Peters (1837) and LaPointe (1842) permitted the six bands of Chippewa to take as much as 100 percent of the allowable catch of fish from the region’s lakes prior to the opening of the sportfishing season. The Chippewas had gained the right to spearfish, hunt and gather timber and wild rice in the northern one-third of the state when they ceded that area, including the lakes, to the federal government. The ruling left the non-Indian fishermen of Wisconsin outraged.

Photo: Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission

The Wisconsin Walleye Wars

Treaty rights apply to all fish but the dispute was centered around the Walleye, a cold-water species that is particularly vulnerable to the 14-foot long spears because it spawns in the shallow waters near the shore. The fishermen shine bright lights on the water and are highly skilled at spearing the fish. It’s a very effective method, which is why it had been outlawed. 

The angry mobs of non-Indians soon descended upon the boat launches and shorelines. They carried signs like ‘Welfare or Walleye?’ and yelled racial slurs. They hung Indians in effigy and carried mock Indian heads on torches and spears. They spread nails across the roads and slashed car tires. They threw rocks and used slingshots. They took to the lakes and employed their powerful boats as weapons to swamp the Indians in their small canoes. Hundreds of “protestors” showed up, and it took crews of law enforcement officers in riot gear from across the state to control what was essentially a lynch mob. Hundreds of armed protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Explosive devices, weapons and ammunition were seized as evidence. 

“Hundreds of armed protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.”

The Wisconsin Walleye Wars became a rite of spring for eight long years. In light of what happened during the recent Trump administration and its aftermath, we may have become numb to this sort of thing. Forty years ago, however, it was a shocking revelation of just how deep the hatred for Indians was in some parts of the country. The opposition was fierce and organized. White-centric groups were quickly formed to distribute propaganda and spur the outrage. They put up posters in small towns and handed out pamphlets and fliers in mom-and-pop bars. They made media appearances on a regular basis. One group even utilized a uniquely Wisconsin method of fundraising – they launched ‘Treaty Beer’ to support a cause they viewed as their patriotic duty.

The rhetoric was loud, and too many regular folks were taken in by the fear mongering and scare tactics. They were scared that a total depletion of natural resources would occur if Indians were able to hunt and fish freely. They said the resort economy would collapse, jobs would be lost, and their way of life would forever be damaged. In the end, the impact on the fish population was negligible.

Photograph: Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission

Much ado about nothing

In the 1980s, Indians made up about 5% of the population of Wisconsin. Of the 800,000 or so fish that were taken annually in the state, they landed about 2 percent as a source of food. The rest were harvested by non-Indian, hook-and-line anglers enjoying an afternoon on the water with their buddies. Predictions that the fish population would collapse proved unfounded. Over time  the protestors lost public support due to their racist diatribes and violent assaults, and Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson took aggressive action to halt the protest and salve the wounds. He formed a Treaty Rights Task Force in 1989 to find ways to keep the peace, which resulted in law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear, standing shoulder to shoulder, three deep, with sticks and shields ready to stop the mob if they attempted to cross the flimsy snow fences that had been erected for crowd control.

Finally, in 1991, tribal supporters won an injunction in federal court that curtailed the protests at boat landings. Then, on April 10, 1991 – the first day of the spearing season – Governor Thompson signed a bill authorizing a fine of up to $1,000 for anyone who attempted to prevent the Chippewa from exercising their treaty rights. The Walleye Wars were essentially over.

There’s no question that species protection and environmental management is a legitimate issue. So, too, is protecting regional economies that are dependent on tourism driven by natural resources. But this dark period in Wisconsin history wasn’t really about all that. It was about racism, hatred and pure unadulterated anger towards Indian people. Resort owners may have feared the negative impact of Native fishing on their businesses. Ironically, it was the violent mobs of anti-Indian protestors who caused the tourists to stay away.

Photo: Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission