Native Americans in Michigan have legal rights to fish and hunt established by centuries-old treaties between tribes and the federal government.
These rights mean that tribal members aren't governed by the same state regulations as other anglers and hunters. And that's led to confrontations and harassment of Native American anglers throughout the state's history.
Kathryn Tierney is an attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community in the northeastern Upper Peninsula. She argued the 1976 landmark case, People vs. LeBlanc, that helped further protect tribal fishing and hunting rights.
Jacques LeBlanc, Jr. is a commercial fisherman from Bay Mills and the grandson of “Big Abe” LeBlanc, whose arrest led to that 1976 case.
In the 1970s, tribal members around the Great Lakes were being threatened and assaulted by white fishermen. Tierney says the root of that dispute centered around tribal fishers’ use of gillnets, which were declared illegal by the state of Michigan.
“They were calling [the nets] lethal, non-selective devices, meaning that they were taking fish that otherwise would be available for sport fishers to harvest,” Tierney said. “That meant that Indian fishers were seen as the bad guys, so that if you didn’t get your bag limit one day on the lake, it must’ve been because Indian fisherman were taking the fish that you otherwise would’ve been able to harvest.”
Tierney notes that gillnets have been used by Native American fishers for generations and are legal under tribal law. If the state had forced the tribe to abide by Michigan law, she says, Native American anglers' ability to make a living would have been severely impacted.
In response to that threat, Jacques LeBlanc, Jr. says that his grandfather decided to set gillnets in plain sight of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, a move that opened a sort of “test case” for his community.
Initially, Tierney says, “Big Abe” LeBlanc’s case resulted in a conviction for fishing with the illegal gillnet. But in 1974, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed that conviction, citing the right to fish that was preserved in the 1836 treaty with the United States.
The state of Michigan appealed the case to the Michigan Supreme Court, which Tierney says ultimately agreed with the decision reached by the state Court of Appeals. But LeBlanc says the intimidation didn’t end with the court’s affirmation of the tribe's treaty rights.
“A lot of white people feel as though Native people are getting a way bigger piece of the pie than they are, and they feel as though they deserve an equal piece of the pie,” LeBlanc, Jr. said. “But what most people seem to forget is that this was originally our pie, and we signed for these rights when we gave this land up.”
LeBlanc, Jr. says while he feels safe fishing, he has encountered racist notes left on his truck and had his fishing gear damaged by other fishers. But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing his family tradition.
“Fishing is a big part of our community, the Bay Mills Indian Community. I am a third-generation fisherman, and I’m just very proud to carry on traditions, especially the ones that my grandfather fought for,” LeBlanc, Jr. said.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.