Tribal spearfishing is a hard-fought right in Wisconsin and tradition for Indigenous families.
Green Bay Press-Gazette
LAC DU FLAMBEAU - Sure, William Poupart could drive to a grocery store and pick up some frozen fish from a commercial producer for his family.
But that wouldn’t connect him to his land or his tribal ancestors.
After a winter that just kept coming back, the lakes in northern Wisconsin are finally thawing. And hundreds of Ojibwe people are setting out to spear walleye and other fish.
“This is my culture, this is my tradition and this is who I am,” Poupart, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
“I hunt and gather the way my ancestors did and on the same land and waters as them,” Poupart continued. “I’m glad my tribe and others are still keeping our traditions alive. They tried long ago to kill the Indian, but yet here we remain.”
Tribal spearfishing is a hard-fought right in Wisconsin.
A map shows the ceded territory of Wisconsin where Chippewa, also known as Ojibwa, tribes hold fishing, hunting and gathering rights.
Poupart's people had fought hard for the right to hunt and fish on land that was once theirs, which includes millions of acres in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan known as the Ceded Territory.
Ojibwe tribal leaders in the mid-1800s had made sure the U.S. government included that stipulation to hunt and fish in treaties when the government took the land and forced tribal peoples onto small reservations.
Wisconsin state government had ignored or eventually forgotten about these treaty rights after statehood, but Ojibwe people would still sometimes exercise their rights clandestinely to feed their families and risk citation or arrest from state game wardens.
Then, in 1974, brothers Fred and Mike Tribble, who are Lac Courtes Oreilles tribal citizens in Wisconsin, alerted the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that they intended to fish off-reservation and were charged.
The brothers challenged the citations in federal court and won against the state in a 1983 ruling known as the Voigt Decision.
Judges in following years repeatedly upheld the Ojibwe people’s right to fish and hunt off-reservation in subsequent rulings and struck down state appeals.
This led to pushback and sometimes violent protests by thousands of non-Native people as the Ojibwe would exercise their treaty rights at the boat landings in the 1980s.
A few isolated incidents of harassment are still reported every season from those who accuse Ojibwe people of overfishing, hurting the tourism industry or somehow not doing it correctly.
The Lac du Flambeau Tribal Fishery restocks area lakes with much more walleye than tribal spearers harvest every year.
And the practice is heavily regulated by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Wisconsin DNR.
How tribal spearfishing works in the Ceded Territory.
Every tribal spearer — there are about 500 of them — has a strict quota of fish they can harvest based on what biologists state can be safely removed.
Non-Native anglers — there are about 2 million in Wisconsin — are not monitored the way tribal spearers are.
Poupart prepares for the spearfishing season, which started later than normal this year at around early May because of weather, pulling his boat and equipment out of storage for inspection.
Batteries are charged, everything’s cleaned, the motor is tuned and cushions and life vests are gathered — as are helmets with lights for night spearing.
Spear poles are also taken out of storage and spearheads sharpened as needed.
Spear poles vary in length, from 10 feet to 15 feet.
Some families buy the spear poles at a store, but Poupart said most harvest them from a swamp.
“Cedar or tamarack are the wood of choice for my family,” he said. “It is best to not have a green or fresh pole because of the weight. It is best to use a swamp pole that has been stripped of its bark and dried by the sun. This makes it much lighter than a green pole. Swamp poles are almost perfect once the bark is removed. Hardly does one have the shave down its diameter.”
Some families might have their spearheads custom made from a blacksmith while others simply order them online, Poupart said.
“They must meet certain specs or we will get a ticket and or have them confiscated,” he said.
Tribal members then must apply to spearfish and are selected by a lottery system.
“If we are lucky enough to get a permit for a lake, we must dress accordingly and travel to that lake around sunset or sooner, depending on distance,” Poupart said. “Once at the lake, our registration on the boat is ran and our tribal IDs are verified by the GLIFWC creel workers. They issue the permits for the number of fish we are allowed on that body of water and record data on our harvested fish.”
Before launching his boat onto the water, Poupart will lay some asema, or tobacco, as a way to give thanks to Creator.
“We then travel the shorelines and cast our light upon the waters in search of those reflective eyes of the walleye,” Poupart said. “We stand at the bow of the boat while cruising along the shores. Once a fish is seen, the motor man guides us near it. The spear pole is then slid closer to the fish. The head of the spear gets dipped just under the water’s surface. Once aligned with the fish, a quick jab does the trick. We bring the pole over the boat and remove the fish from the spear.”
The night’s catch is then brought over to the creel clerk waiting on shore for inspection.
“We must pay close attention to the amount and size of the fish we are harvesting,” Poupart said. “If we go over harvest, fish too big or too many, GLIFWC wardens will confiscate each fish and then issue tickets for each fish. Sometimes we may only have a dozen fish we can get, sometimes more.”
The fish is processed the next morning and they are either eaten fresh or packed and frozen to help feed the entire community on the reservation yearlong.
“It is a staple of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe’s diet,” Poupart said.
And it is a tradition Poupart believes is imperative he hand down to his children.
“Every night, it is essential that I get my children experience, no matter the season or harvesting method,” he said. “Most nights they’re the ones doing majority of the harvesting. Whether they continue this tradition or not, they will know it and will be able to provide for their own one day and then hand down the tradition to their children.”
An Ojibwe family on a spring spearfishing outing near the Michigan-Wisconsin border. Photo by CO Rasmussen, GLIFWC