For April in the Western Upper Peninsula, it’s a pretty warm day. The Little Carp River, surging with snowmelt, winds through a forest of hemlock trees.
Robert Rajacic is scrambling up and down riverbanks, expertly carrying a spear in his right hand. He’s hoping to use it on some rainbow trout.
He’s looking for a flash of movement in the water – anything out of the ordinary. He’s also listening; the fish have a distinctive sound.
"Like a kid splashing in the water,” he says. “Their feet just a-going."
Rajacic is a citizen of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. We’re on their reservation. He says his ancestors lived along this river.
He feels safe here.
But other rivers and lakes, off the reservation, are a different story.
“I'm more wary of what could happen, who could possibly be offended by me being there to harvest fish,” he says.
Tribal citizens like Rajacic have treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather, off-reservation, under their own rules, which are often different than state regulations.
Sometimes, non-native onlookers and other sportsmen don’t like that.
"Once in a while we do get the ones that yell at us, scream at us, or follow us around even, just saying all kinds of nasty things,” he says. “‘Effin' Indians’, or ‘You’re killing all my fish.’"
Every spring, Rajacic and other fishermen from his tribe have a special season when they can spear more walleye than usual.
It happens on nearby Portage Lake – a water body connected to Lake Superior.
Around a decade ago, Rajacic says somebody showed their disapproval by shooting a gun over his head.
“Pretty much the whole town just went nuts," he says. “Like, people were driving down to the docks and they were yelling all kinds of things.”
Tribal officials attended a meeting with local sportsmen to educate them about treaty rights – and the tribe’s conservation and fish stocking programs.
But Rajacic says every spring, there are still a few hecklers.
“After 10 years, I know which docks they're gonna be at,” he says. We're coming around this bend, this guy is gonna hit us with a spotlight, they're gonna yell at us again.”
This phenomenon is not unique to the Upper Peninsula. Citizens from six tribes shared their stories of harassment with Michigan Radio – most occurring within the last five years.
It happens to commercial and subsistence fishermen, hunters, gatherers. They’re called names, spit at, people call the DNR on them. Sometimes, they just get looks or questions.
And, it seems to be happening all over the northern Great Lakes. Earlier this month, tribal citizens from Lac Du Flambeau were shot at while spearfishing in northern Wisconsin.
A history of harassment
Anti-treaty sentiment has a long and dark history in the State of Michigan – which, ironically, could only be created after a series of treaties signed in the 1800s.
The Anishinaabeg, who include the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa, and Potawatomi, ceded tens of millions of acres to the U.S. government, but kept rights to hunt, fish and gather on that land.
Once treaty rights were affirmed in the courts, all hell broke loose. Angry non-natives threatened and harassed Native harvesters. They vandalized fishing nets and boats.
Michigan Governor Bill Milliken took a public anti-treaty stance. So did groups like the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
The state and the tribes have now been co-managing fish and wildlife for decades, and things have calmed down a lot. But, the remaining racism and harassment are bad enough to affect how tribal citizens harvest.
"It wears on somebody"
Doug Craven directs the Natural Resources Department at the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, near Petoskey. He says some in his tribe feel so uneasy that they’ll follow state hunting or fishing rules, instead of tribal regulations.
“It's just a hassle, but also it causes them some concern for their safety, and some fear perhaps in that regard,” he says. “So then they'll elect just to hunt during the state deer season, or they'll elect to just go out and fish with different methods, perhaps maybe not spearing; but they’ll just do hook and line.”
He says even people’s innocent questions can be exhausting.
“It wears on somebody,” he says. “It's hard to kind of continue to have to justify what I'm doing, this is how I’m doing it. At a certain point, people, you know, just wanna go out and fish, or just wanna go out and hunt.”
Craven’s 12-year-old son has been approached while fishing. He says his son, who was alone at the time, informed the stranger he had a tribal license, and that his dad was going to be returning shortly.
“I was proud of him," Craven said. "To have a non-tribal adult come down that's very intimidating, that’s scary to have that type of thing.”
The resource is the priority
Dylan Jennings is with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, or GLIFWC. His organization helps implement and protect treaty rights and resources for tribes in parts of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Jennings says critics of tribal harvesting often express the same stereotype.
“One of the common things we always hear is, 'the Tribal people take and they reap all these resources and, you know, they're ruining the fishing economy or the hunting populations,’” he says.
But, GLIFWC and member tribes keep meticulous records of harvest, and employ biologists that study fish and wildlife populations. Many tribes have their own fish hatcheries.
Another organization, the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, coordinates tribes in the northern Lower Peninsula and eastern U.P.
“We all work really well together to make sure that the resource comes first because the tribes tell us that is the priority, to protect the resource,” says Jennings.
For example, tribes and the state make lake-by-lake management decisions about fishing.
“They establish total allowable catches on each water body,” he says. “And the tribes really work hard to stay within their quotas, and they have.”
This management extends to commercial fishing on the Great Lakes.
Harvesting for the community
A lot of times, tribal subsistence harvesters can take more deer or fish than a state hunter or fisherman – but then it’ll be shared with their whole community.
Jennings, who is a citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, says he might get 10 deer in one season, and most of it doesn’t end up his own freezer.
“That meat goes to funerals, naming ceremonies, other types of ceremonies, and it's also distributed to elders,” he says. “Our elder center feeds our community elders every day just about, and our elders just love deer meat, just love fish, just love all of those things that, you know, are part of our way of life.”
He thinks those still upset about treaty rights forget what the Anishinaabeg gave up for them.
“That's a really important part of history to remember,” he says. “The sacrifices that the tribes up in these areas have given up for those abilities to harvest.”
Anishinaabe communities want their kids to carry on traditions that are essential to their existence and culture.
Robert Rajacic wants his three daughters to get involved in spearfishing. But he says there are some places he won’t bring them yet.
"I don't want them to have the fear of somebody hurting them physically or just calling them mean names,” he says. “I don't want them to experience that.”
But, he knows he won’t always be able to protect them. He hopes someday his daughters can practice their treaty rights without fear or intimidation.