A walleye is a precious thing. Between two-to-three feet long, sporting a pair of fins and a green and yellow shimmer, a walleye is a thing of beauty as it swims through a northern lake.
It’s also a delectable dish, whether grilled, smoked or sautéed. A hand-filleted walleye, seasoned with lemon and rosemary and served alongside a plateful of fresh roasted vegetables, is as much at home on the family dinner table as it is in an upscale restaurant.
But the walleye is more than a morsel. It’s the centerpiece of a centuries-old fishing and food production industry. It’s the backbone of a sovereign nation’s economy. It’s the childhood memories of summers spent standing on the sunbathed shores of Red Lake, rod in hand, waiting for a nibble. And it all exists today because a tribal nation made it its responsibility not only to catch, fillet and sell the fish, but to protect them and the water they swim in for generations to come.
The Red Lake supports not just the walleye, perch and crappie that share its waters, but the land beyond its reach. The earth, much like the lake itself, is rich with life and abundant in towering lowland trees, such as ash, maple and basswood. And there, living beside them all, are the citizens of the Red Lake Nation.
The Red Lake Nation stands unmoved on the shores of their namesake since the mid-18th century. In this time, the Anishinaabe people have acted as stewards for the animals, the land, the water and the walleye. They have built their culture, economy and tribal government with the lake in mind. The Gitigaanike Training Garden nestled in the woods that blanket the sparse community of Redby, Minnesota, allows citizens to harvest heirloom tomatoes, squash and potatoes with wild rice from Rice Lake and, of course, the walleye from Red Lake Fishery.
This is the story of the walleye, and of the multigenerational effort by the Red Lake Nation to keep their namesake proudly, unabashedly, beautifully Indigenous.
“The first thing when you say, ‘I’m from Red Lake,’ they say, ‘Oh, walleye.’”
That’s Red Lake Nation fisheries biologist Pat Brown. He’s been employed at the tribally owned fishery since 1997—not that long relative to the three centuries that the nation’s fishermen have been dropping their nets into the water, but long enough to see the power it can summon to protect their finned friends from colonizer greed, overfishing, or its most recent threat: zebra mussels, an invasive species that overwhelms fish populations.
The story of how the Red Lake Nation managed to stay on their land these past centuries is one of resistance. Following the Civil War, the federal government came not just for the walleye, but for all of Red Lake. Congress passed the Nelson Act in 1889; like its more famous counterpart, the Dawes Act, the bill sought to break up the land of the Minnesota tribes and allot it, making parcels available for purchase to state and private interests. But the Red Lake Nation did not budge from their shores and did not sign away their lake. Due to their prolonged resistance to relocation, the federal effort stalled and eventually refocused on the other six Chippewa tribes, who were moved onto the White Earth Reservation. The Red Lake Nation now manages 840,000 acres of what is commonly referred to as a closed reservation, meaning that unlike reservations where parcels of land are under individual ownership, the Red Lake Nation’s land is communally owned by the tribe and the nearly 12,000 citizens that live there.
Given the history, it might seem surprising that the state has proved a successful partner. But in recent decades, the Minnesota government has learned to listen to and follow their Indigenous neighbors. This is crucial, as the Nation currently maintains jurisdiction over 85 percent of the Upper and Lower Red Lake. The remaining 15 percent—the eastern portion of the Upper Red Lake—is overseen by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). And it’s this partnership, as well as the willingness of the state to follow the tribe’s lead, that has secured the long-term health of the lake, even in times of dire emergency.
“[The Red Lake is] part of the identity,” Brown said. “Everything is tied to the lake, both culturally and just family life, because it’s always been that way. We’re right on the shores of it. It’s just amazing that this is [the Nation’s] and they’re here for a very short time to protect that for the next generation.”
At the beginning of the 1990s, little thought had been given to the limits of the lake and the creatures it held. The tribe’s commercial fishery allowed licensed fishers to use gill nets to scoop up increasingly massive hauls of walleye. The state allowed scores of anglers to catch-and-keep at whatever levels they liked in their portion of the lake. And a burgeoning black market rose to service sellers from both sides—Brown said that many fishers would turn to shady sellers to unload hauls that were larger than legally permitted. In the end, it was the walleye who paid the highest price.
The alarm bells finally rang in 1996, when the tribal fishery announced that their annual reported haul had dropped from their early 1990s high of 950,000 pounds to a dismal 15,000. Brown said that he and the team brought in by the tribe to assess the walleye population, “determined that it basically collapsed” due to overfishing.
Because the Red Lake Nation maintained the majority of control over the lake, it was able to take the immediate drastic measures needed to save the fish from extinction: In an unprecedented move, the fishery shut down all gill net fishing. People of the Red Lake Nation, with families to feed and bills to pay, set aside their economic self-interest, “because they wanted the lake to heal,” Brown explained.
The moratorium was part of a three-part plan that the tribe developed and then convinced the Minnesota DNR to help implement to ensure that everyone who used the lake would be a part of the solution for the walleye. Enforcing the fishing ban was the second prong, with increased patrols to rein in the black-market harvesting. The final move came with three efforts to stock the lake with walleye fry in 1999, 2001 and 2003.
What’s remarkable about the situation at Red Lake is not that the Indigenous nation took responsible action—it’s that the state, their effective partner in the lake’s management, listened to them. The two sides signed a management plan in 1999 that established a partnership committee that roped in the state, the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the University of Minnesota. By 2006, with the plan in full effect, the walleye population was back up to an estimated 7.5 million, and fishing—tightly regulated—was reopened.
Over the last fourteen years, the walleye have regained stability thanks to the renewal of these management plans and the cooperation of the tribe and the state. In early December 2019, the state of Minnesota signed a fourth Memorandum of Understanding with the Red Lake Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, extending walleye management for another ten years.
“The big thing is that the walleye population recovered,” Brown pointed out. “But one of the things we like to tell in our story is how when you get agencies that actually work together for the common good, it’s amazing what you can accomplish. You know how it is in Indian Country, a lot of the times the state or the feds are fighting you all the time. But with us coming together to do something good for the resource, you see you can accomplish some great things.”
I would love to tell you that such rapid responses and relatively seamless partnerships have been duplicated many times over in North America. But I can’t. Positive outcomes are rare, and any that are achieved require following a contentious path dotted with pitched battles. Just ask Kathryn Teneese.
The chairperson of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, Teneese and the Ktunaxa have spent the past three decades trying to protect Qat’muk, an area of traditional Ktunaxa land located in the Jumbo Valley in British Columbia, which private interests and the provincial government have long hoped to turn into a ski resort.
The Ktunaxa council did everything in their power to impress on the provincial government how important Qat’muk was to those that called it home—like the 600-plus grizzly bears who use it as a natural corridor. When those attempts were roundly ignored, she made the case on behalf of the Ktunaxa, for whom the area holds great spiritual importance—a notable approach given the Ktunaxa do not typically share the details of their spiritual beliefs with outsiders.
The government again ignored the sensitive information and continued to approve environmental assessment certificates and extensions for the project. The Supreme Court followed suit in 2017, ruling against the Ktunaxa by stating that religion is not tied to a place.
“A big part of it was because I still don’t believe that people recognized that Indigenous people were organized, had structures, had beliefs before the time of contact,” Teneese told me. “They have the same standing as Christianity, Muslim, etc. That’s what we were arguing.”
The Ktunaxa persevered to protect Qat’muk, challenging the resort development in court. In August 2019, the provincial Court of Appeals ruled that the resort’s environmental certificate was invalid. The Ktunaxa, working with the provincial and federal government, then received federal funding to establish an Indigenous Conserved and Protected Area and purchase both the ski resort’s development claim and all remaining land tenures. Now, with the support from all levels of government and the local communities, the Ktunaxa are again leading the stewardship and conservation of Qat’muk.
The ending was and is one to be celebrated—they won, after all—but the contentious path required to arrive there is far more representative of what First Nations and tribal governments are forced to contend with. In the Southwest, the Trump administration is destroying sacred burial sites in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument belonging to the Tohono O’odham Nation to make way for a border wall. In the West, the protection zone around Bears Ears is being shrunk to make way for drilling and mining operations. To the north, in British Columbia, the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs are fighting for their traditional territory. This is what normal looks like for Indigenous nations.
Before America was a twinkle in the eye of its all-white founders, the land, the rivers, the trees, the animals and anything else that lived and breathed and flowed on the continent was under the stewardship of Indigenous people, people such as my own, the Sappony (Saponi). But as the colonizers flooded the continent, this stewardship often took a backseat to interests of finances and power desired by American government officials and capitalists.
The resulting history includes an inordinate amount of land theft and resource pilfering by the invading nations, but through the resilience of the Indigenous nations, their traditional models of land and resource management survived. As a result, so too have the creatures that inhabit the land and waters they look over. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a 2019 report that concluded Indigenous stewardship is what’s best for the planet. Signatories included representatives from 42 countries, who, following the report, emphasized the fact that, across the world, Indigenous people manage 40 percent of all protected areas and 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. And yet, efforts like these—like the Ktunaxa’s, or like the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ move to reclaim the National Bison Range in Montana—are regularly opposed by the same regional and federal powers that built their fortune on swindling them.
Red Lake is not my home. I know only of it what I have read and what the employees and citizens of Red Lake Nation have been kind enough to share with me. For my people, our ancestral home included Hico-oto-moni, a river snaking near what is now called Danville, Virginia. But as the British spread across the East Coast in the 1700s, our people were pushed away from our traditional lands. We, the modern Sappony Tribe, followed the water south, into North Carolina. Then, in the 1960s, Duke Energy built a dam, blocking the two Hico-oto-moni branches from flowing down through high plains, the place we call home.
In the story of the Red Lake walleye, I choose to find an undeniable sense of empowerment and hope. It seems crucial, at this moment, to remember that right now, today, there are places within the borders of the United States that have never been under the control of colonizers. Land and waters that are pristine and bountiful, precisely because the people living with them have steadfastly refused to view them solely as resources to be commodified, but also as living relatives. And so, in this time of great uncertainty, the path forward for our planet is remarkably clear. Where the colonizer tradition has been to take and steal and hoard, the time has come for a new model—a new partnership, formed with mutual respect. The global powers must give Indigenous nations a seat at the table; they must give them the respect they deserve not just as sovereign nations but as environmental leaders; they must reconfigure their understanding of what land and water is and what it means to politically and culturally align themselves with their ancestral stewards.
Put more radically, they must give it back.
Editor’s note: Patagonia supports the sovereign rights of tribes to manage their resources, and applaud the efforts of the Red Lake Nation to quickly regulate tribal, commercial and recreational walleye fishing at Red Lake, and the success they have seen in that fishery rebounding. At the same time, we have questions about the potential genetic impacts of hatchery stocking on wild fish populations. We will continue to track closely the science and use of conservation hatcheries, and engage with tribal and Indigenous groups in dialogue on the issue, as we all pursue a common goal of harvestable, self-sustaining wild fish.