From where Bob DeFeyter sits -- in a neat, spanking white cabin on a sun-dappled lake known as the walleye capital of the world -- mere mention of the opening of the fishing season today still makes the sturdy 67-year-old light up.
But when DeFeyter walks down to his boathouse at 7 this morning, some of the thrill will be gone. He'll slide the faded red 17-foot boat out alongside the dock, just like always. He'll load his rods and bait and fire up the big, 105-horsepower Chrysler outboard, just like always. But Bob DeFeyter is not a happy man.
The source of his problem lies on the other side of Mille Lacs, over on the west shore, where another, very different kind of fishing season has already come and gone. After almost eight years of contentious negotiation and litigation over a treaty signed before Minnesota was a state, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and seven neighboring tribes have just concluded their first court-sanctioned spring harvest of walleye. Mille Lacs, an enormous, round lake some 20 miles across, is suddenly not big enough for everyone who wants a piece of it.
Ojibwe and Chippewa fishermen using spears and 100-foot gill nets caught nearly 40,000 pounds of walleye by the end of April -- close to the full quota authorized by the courts in this first year of a five-year plan that will allow the Indian harvest to increase to 100,000 pounds per year.
One of the anglers was Brad Kalk, one of the band's most enthusiastic fishermen. Some nights at the height of the spawn he took upward of 30 walleye, most of which he gave away to tribal elders.
Although he could have fished anywhere on the lake, Kalk set his nets right off the reservation. "I chose that place because my grandparents had lived there," he said. "My uncles and my grandfather dug out the boat landing there."
But there was another reason he chose to fish off the reservation. "We were able to have a good time without being harassed by anybody who had a different view of what we're doing."
As good as the fishing has been this spring, savoring the principle was even better.
"I was more excited that our rights had been recognized than I was to actually get out there," said Kalk.
The state of Minnesota and a coalition of landowners and counties fought the Ojibwe in court to prevent this from happening and have appealed the lower court rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the high court has not yet said whether it will hear the case.
Meanwhile, resort operators, small businesses catering to tourists, and thousands of hook-and-line anglers like Bob DeFeyter face the possibility that new fishing quotas could force the closure of the state's most beloved fishing lake before the regular season ends.
In Minnesota, a place where people know when Mother's Day is because it's always the day after the walleye opener, this is inconceivable.
The battle taking shape in Minnesota these days is about more than a fish. It's a replay of countless other skirmishes across the country as Indians reassert their tribal sovereignty -- their unique legal status, originating from their treaties with the U.S. government, that recognizes Indian tribes as governments and, as such, exempt from state laws and regulations -- and demand rights promised to them in another age. The assertion of those rights is increasingly sparking a backlash from the white community.
And in this part of Minnesota, it has so turned the community upside down that some whites now complain they've been outspent and outsmarted and downright cheated by Indians who are more articulate and better-educated and quite a lot richer than they are.
"Nobody in the United States should live under different laws than the rest of its citizens," DeFeyter said. "That's what I live by. If the Supreme Court doesn't look at this situation and find that everybody has to be equal, then they're just wrong."
Don Wedll, commissioner of natural resources for the band, says he's distressed by the sudden concern whites have developed over the issue of equal rights. "They say they want everybody in the United States to be equal," Wedll said. "But they don't apply that to anything but tribal issues they disagree with. They don't mind that their own nonprofit organization doesn't pay taxes, only that the casino doesn't.
"They never asked for equality in life expectancy, which historically has been about 50 years on the reservation. That's a direct consequence of poverty, another thing nobody has demanded equality in."
The script for this drama was written 160 years ago, when the Chippewa nations of Minnesota and Wisconsin signed away more than 13 million acres of their homelands to the federal government. In exchange, the Treaty of 1837 gave them provisions, tobacco, $9,500 a year for 20 years and a guarantee that they would retain fishing, hunting and rice-gathering privileges throughout the ceded territory.
The Mille Lacs Chippewa -- who now use the alternate name Ojibwe -- continued to hunt and fish much as they had ever since arriving in the area in the mid-1700s. By the 1930s, they were occasionally being challenged by state conservation officers. In 1978, two Ojibwe who'd been fishing with a net went to prison following a run-in with game wardens in which shots were fired.
Finally, in 1990, the band filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the state from enforcing its fish and game regulations on the Ojibwe. There followed protracted litigation, a proposed settlement that was rejected by the Minnesota legislature and the formation of a nonprofit organization called Proper Economic Resource Management, which has engaged in a public campaign opposing Indian treaty rights and Indian sovereignty. Among PERM's 1,500 members is local icon and avid outdoorsman Bud Grant, former coach of the Minnesota Vikings football team.
Grant says he got involved after seeing what happened in Wisconsin after Indians gained similar fishing rights there. He says the lake where he owns a cabin was "fished out" three years ago by Indians fishing through the ice with as many as 30 lines apiece. The true issue, he says, is not racism, but what he calls the outmoded notion of an Indian nation within a nation.
"We've got a form of apartheid right here in America," Grant said. "We have different laws based on race. Indians can do something we can't do. That's apartheid. Ultimately, what we're hoping for is a whole new Indian policy."
But the Ojibwe won in district court and again at the appellate level. Despite a long, contradictory trail of orders and treaties, the bottom line for the courts has been that the Indians would never have knowingly relinquished rights essential to their survival.
Jim Genia, the band's 34-year-old solicitor general, says the Ojibwe are on sound legal footing. "The 1837 treaty did not give Indians anything," he said. "These rights to hunt and fish existed already. They were simply being guaranteed for the future.
"So what if the treaties are old? The Constitution is older and everyone respects its authority."
The litigation transpired at a time when the Ojibwe were reaping a windfall from two lavish casino and hotel complexes the band opened in the early 1990s. One of them, Grand Casino Mille Lacs, is right by the shore of the lake, in the heart of the reservation, where unemployment has shrunk from 46 percent 10 years ago to single digits today. The band has also improved housing and living conditions on the reservation, built a new government center on Mille Lacs and begun acquiring land throughout the area. This year's walleye harvest has lent a sweet finish to a stunning reversal of Ojibwe fortunes.
Everyone on both sides of Mille Lacs is grateful that the violent confrontations that accompanied Indian fishing in Wisconsin have not been repeated in Minnesota. And a very warm spring allowed the Ojibwe to finish up their harvest well in advance of the sport fishing season. But that may not always be the case.
"Normally the ice goes out a week before the opener," said Tim Chapman, who with his wife, Tina, runs Scenic Bay Resort not far from Bob DeFeyter's place on the southeast corner of the lake.
"That means sooner or later you're going to see nets spread across people's favorite fishing spots on opening day. And I don't know what will happen then."
"We just want what's best for the lake," Tina said, "and we don't think netting and spearing can be good for the lake no matter who's doing it."
The best interests of the lake are now a matter of official record. The courts have required the state's Department of Natural Resources to limit the fish harvest on Mille Lacs. The DNR has done so by increasing the minimum "keeper" size, limiting the number of large fish that can be taken, and -- most significantly -- by setting a cap on the aggregate total walleye catch by both Indians and sport anglers. This year's cap is 260,000 pounds.
Since the Indians have already taken their 40,000-pound allotment, that leaves 220,000 pounds for the regular fishing season. Last year -- not an especially good one -- sport anglers caught 270,000 pounds of walleye on Mille Lacs.
Few people around Mille Lacs can believe that the DNR would actually close the season on the lake if the cap is reached. But Jack Wingate, a DNR fisheries manager, said not only could they do that, they'd have to.
"We have no choice," said Wingate. "We are required to do so by the court. There's no question it would be economically disastrous to that area. But we would really have few options.
"If the Indian harvest grows to 100,000 pounds, you'll see significant restrictions," Wingate said. "And at some point that's going to drive fishermen away because they'll not be able to keep what they catch."
But for today, most will set aside their arguments to concentrate on fishing. Bob DeFeyter will be there. So will Tim Chapman, hauling customers out on his launch. Brad Kalk, having fished the tribal season, planned to buy a license for the regular season and fish the opener just like everybody else. Up and down the shore, the resorts are booked solid. You can't find anybody who isn't ready. Okay, maybe one person. "Me?" Jim Genia said. "Oh no. No. I don't fish. Actually, I don't like the taste of walleye." CAPTION: Don Wedll, natural resources commissioner for the Ojibwe, says whites apply equality concerns only to "tribal issues they disagree with," such as the Indians' right to harvest Lake Mille Lacs' walleye, below.