Maamakaadenbaagwad (it is amazing): The Miracle of the Walleye
Red Lake Department of Natural Resources and Project Preserve. "Maamakaadenbaagwad (it is amazing): The Miracle of the Walleye." Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. Red Lake, Minnesota. 2008. Film.
This Honoring Nations "Lessons in Nation Building" video is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.
"The tradition of fishing has been passed on from generation to generation. It is part of who we are as a Nation. So when the fish left, so did part of our identity.
Then came the miracle of the walleye. We thank the Creator and all those that sacrificed to bring back the tradition of fishing. We will not forget."
REMEMBERING THE PAST
When the Lake Was Our Warehouse
"It was really fun in the olden days cause there was a lot of fishing. A lot of work to it, but it kept us going."
"When I was growing up, we didn't have nothing. We just had a piece of string and that's how we used to fish."
"When we fished a long time ago, we didn't have no motor boats. We had to use paddles to get out on the lake."
"We had wooden boats, flat-bottom wooden boats with an old 10-horse[power] Johnson motor, which I bought from my brother before he left. That was in the early "˜50s so you know the motor was kind of old by then."
"Back in 1921, we was fishing then but we was fishing down at the [location]. That's where I lived. We had a landing in there where we [unintelligible] and to the land. And we had a steep hill we'd pull the fish boxes up. We used a horse to do that. He helped us all day long, that horse."
"In the evening, we'd set them just before dark. We would set them overnight, then early in the morning about 5:00 we'd go out and get them. We had to go out early because I was working. The nets were regular nets and we used eight of them. That's about what we done, that's just what we had to do at that time."
"We used to use our boat to go to Red Lake to take our fish stock. Don't think about...well, we had a fast boat, it would take about an hour on the lake to get to the fishery."
"We got all different kinds of different fish. We got a lot of perch and walleyes and northerns. Then towards the end there we started to get a lot of sheephead and stuff. But then the walleyes, we used to get a lot of them then all of a sudden they just...we didn't get any more."
FROM SUSTAINENCE TO INDUSTRY
Establishing Fishing as an Economic Resource
"Traditionally, Red Lake members fished by spear and by line. It was a practice that was a way of life to the community and was in balance with nature."
"This spear I made out of maple. My grandfather and grandmother were making these one day and they said I could go get fish with these when I was a little boy and I did. I made one like this."
(Set in 1921)
"It wasn't until the early 1900s that the State of Minnesota first introduced fishing as an industry to Red Lake Nation.
The annual quota for walleye and Northern Pike was 650,000 lbs.
Annual quotas were established and in 1921 the state built a fishery close to the lake. Netting was introduced and for the first time there was steady employment on the reservation. Families took up the practice of netting on behalf of the fishery.
Each night, each family could set 5 nets, each 300 ft. long with 4-inch stretch mesh.
The state then brokered all sales off the reservation."
"When they started fishing on the reservation, it was to keep the war effort going and the State of Minnesota started a fishing year and they started fishing with pond nets which are trap nets and they keep the fish in there. But they couldn't get enough that way, so they started with nets and then the tribal members started fishing then."
"They taught me how to hang nets, how to pull nets, how to pick the fish out of the nets, everything, every phase. We even hauled fish around the lake so we got in on that, too. We knew what everybody caught around the lake."
FROM INDUSTRY TO UNEMPLOYMENT
Depletion of a Precious Resource
"No one ever considered the possibility that the lake could become overfished. But it happened. In the late 1990s, we saw the population of walleye almost become extinct."
"There are several things that caused the downfall of the walleye. First of all, many people blame the commercial fishery, but it wasn't just the commercial fishery. The federal government was to manage this lake on a sustainable basis, but they never did. It was basically for social and economic issues is what they used. The Red Lake DNR [Department of Natural Resources] was started in 1987 and the main reason that the DNR was started here was because the tribal council was concerned that the fish stocks were being overfished in Red Lake. The original DNR consisted basically of a director, a secretary and a fishery biologist and after that time then it kind of grew."
"We took spawn in the spring. Usually it takes four males to one female and we had a biologist check and our rate I think in about '90 was 250 to one female so you could see why I was alarmed but other people didn't seem to be alarmed by it but I was because I thought, "˜If the female all go, then we're done.'"
"They started making big fish bonuses here and everybody wanted to get in on it so at one time there was over 600 fishermen, but that wasn't all, there was other people fishing too, Upper Red [Lake]."
"Yeah, they weren't paying attention. They wanted to make more money because guys started using more nets and more illegal nets, too, which they should have probably never done because it cleaned it out pretty quick there in the early "˜90s then."
"On the state waters they had the same problems. Basically we had people taking more than one limit a day, but they just never had the enforcement staff to properly monitor up there either."
"And we always figured another 60,000 to 70,000 was going off on the black market and that hurt the lake, too."
"A lot of people talk about the black market that was running rampant around the Red Lakes. If there was not a market for those fish off the reservation, then there wouldn't have been a black market. So all those things together basically caused the collapse."
"The impact of overfishing was devastating to Red Lake's economy. Everyone living on the reservation felt the impact. It served as a wake up call, a reminder that the lake and its fish were the reservation's most valuable natural resource. The time had come for sacrifice and for change."
"'Cause there wasn't enough stock in the lake they voted to stop fishing."
"It was a hard pill to swallow for some people to say, "˜Geez, we're not going to fish any more for 10 years.' And there was...even though everything indicated that our lake was not in a good way. Some people just did not want to accept the fact that we were really hurting and that our fishing populations had depleted to a point of danger. And even with all that information, they said, "˜We don't really want to stop. We don't think we should have to.' So it was the tribe who initiated the moratorium. It was the fishermen themselves who said, "˜We're not catching fish anymore, something needs to happen,' and it was the tribal leadership who said, "˜We're going to reach out to the State of Minnesota, the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] and the surrounding communities to work with them to make this thing successful.'"
"Former Chairman Bobby Whitefeather had a meeting with State DNR Commissioner Rod Sando down in the Minneapolis area and they talked about the problems with the Red Lake Walleye fishery, the sharply declining catches, and since the state owns a portion of Upper Red Lake, they have some jurisdiction there, so the two talked about a joint effort to try and recover walleye stocks."
"The Band and the State and the feds had to come to the same table and agree on how we were going to bring back the walleye."
"The plan included both short- and long-term goals. What did we need to do to get the recovery off the ground and running? Such things as short-term stocking to help, it also included a moratorium on fishing on the Red Lakes. The memorandum also included an enforcement plan spelling out the responsibilities of both the state and the tribe and how they were going to enforce stoppage of fishing and various other regulations. So it had two important components, the recovery plan and the enforcement plan and these were incorporated in the Memorandum of Agreement and then that was signed back in 1998 by the Band, the State and the federal government. So that officially started the process for the recovery of Red Lake Walleye."
Hard Work, Patience and a Little Good Luck
"Several years passed. The community honored the request of the technical committee and slowly, over time, with hard work from many people, a healthy population of walleye returned to Red Lake."
"We had some good luck, we did some stocking which worked and did good there. But we also had a moratorium on the harvest of walleye and that was extremely important having that in place. So it was actually the patience of the people who liked to fish in giving up fishing for quite a few years that aided in the recovery also."
"It was...it's kind of a miracle and we had a lot of good luck. When we first started to recover the population we felt that if we did the big stocking then we would be able to maybe bring the lake back in 10 years. And the reason we said 10 years was is that we were going to do these major stockings every other year to bring back the population. Our guess was that we would only get one or two of those big stockings to actually take and in fact what we ended happening was all three of the big stockings that we did, all three of them produced big year classes and that was the good luck."
"We had teams of fisheries assessment folks from both the tribe and the state and they worked the waters pretty much all year long to collect information on the fish stocks. We undertook tagging of fish where we implanted the fry before stocking in a tetracycline solution, which put a mark on the fish and that allowed us, when the fish were released into the water, we could track them as they grew up and determine which numbers were stocked and then what the percentage of stock versus natural walleye were in the lake and that was a critical component to being able to assess the recovery of the walleye."
"I've got to admit I had my doubts, but like I always stressed before, it was a lot of luck involved in this besides a lot of work. But I know that we need to keep monitoring it and doing these assessments so we can always be aware of the condition of the lake so we can take appropriate measures if and when it ever happens like the way it goes starting to be overfished. Hopefully with what our job is that it'll never happen."
"The gods helped us out a little bit. We had good years and stuff happened the way it was supposed to so it came back faster than they ever thought it would."
BACK TO FISHING
Finding a Sustainable Balance
"During the recovery process and a couple years prior to the reopening of the fishery, we had community meetings across the reservation in off-reservation tribal communities like say in Minneapolis and Duluth to talk about the fact that the fish were coming back and it looked like we were going to reopen."
"The catch limits were put in place, the recommendations were put in place by the Red Lake Fisheries Technical Committee, and the reason they did this is to try to make the harvest so it's sustainable."
"It's more of a change for some of the people that used to fish with nets but maybe it's like...Indians, we've always adapted anyway so we're going to learn a different way of doing things."
"As far as preserving the lake, we've taken a very slow approach to how we're going to get back into the fishing industry. One of the main things was regulation. We want to make sure that we listen to the tribal members who wanted fishing industry regulated. Until we're able to adequately do that, then we're going to go slow. For about the first two or three years we'll hook and line and then after that when we have the resources to regulate we'll go further from there."
"When fishing was reintroduced in 2006, a series of regulations were put in place to protect this new population of walleye."
Only Red Lake Band Members may fish reservation waters
"It feels good to see all that fish and it's just good to come out here and fish and see the walleyes."
Hook and Line is the only legal way of harvesting walleye
"Bring him up. There he is."
"I got that one."
"All right, Ryan."
All Walleye Between 20 and 28 inches must be released
"It needs to be 18 inches to keep."
"You can see it's too big."
"You going to throw him back?"
"This needs to be put back."
Subsistence limit – to walleye commercial limit – 75 walleye
"Along with the regulations a series of six biological assessments were established to assist with determining population levels and trends."
"Yeah, we basically do six different assessments throughout the year, and the first one we do every spring is usually in mid-April and that's the spawn trap assessment. And what we do there is we basically block the river off. It allows us to see how many males and females are going up the river to spawn and we do the same thing every year and that allows us to compare that information from year to year to see how the recovery was going, but secondly now that the recovery is done we can see how many spawning fish are coming up the river. The second assessment that we do every year is called a post-spawn assessment; it's a gill-net assessment. And the reason we do that is because we base so much of our quota on the number of mature females in the lake and they're saying that all those females are basically laying eggs, at least the mature ones. Sometimes in a system like this, not all those females who lay their eggs will actually re-absorb or not spawn the lake now and that can throw our estimate off. The third survey that we do every year is usually the whole month of July and the first two weeks of August and that's our shoreline seining, and that's how we tell how many baby walleyes are being produced on an annual basis. And the way we do that is we have eight different sites on Upper and Lower Red Lake that we sample each week for six weeks and then we count the number of walleyes that we catch, the young, yellow perch, particularly the perch fish and then we compare that from year to year."
"And that goes on for quite a while there, weeks. Our objective there is to collect all the different year classes of walleye and we'll cut their heads open and take the loose bones out of them and scale. This way we can age them in the winter months. Field surveys -- we'll do interviews with fishermen on the lake in the summer months and the winter months. And what we do is we write a little questionnaire that we fill out and we ask them for their permission if they want to be in this, they have a choice. It's just simple questions. What we do with this data is we use this to determine the pressure on the lake."
PLANNING FOR TOMORROW
Working Together Towards an Economic Future
"In 2008, the Red Lake Fisheries reopened its doors ready to begin a new chapter of commercial innovations. This time not only processing the fish caught from the lake, but also packaging and distributing the walleye on behalf of the community."
"With all the machinery in place the fishermen will come in, their fish is weighed and the fish is then gone through a de-scaling machine, then it goes through a heading machine and then a fillet machine, which will basically give us a bone free fillet. From the fillet machine it'll drop onto a trim table and that's where the process will do the final trim and making sure that the specs are good on the fillets so hopefully no bones and good V-cuts. And then from the trim table it'll go into the new freezer tunnel. It'll go out of the freezer tunnel onto a glaze conveyor. And then from the glaze conveyor it goes to a machine that's called the scan back machine that'll actually weigh the individual fillets into size coordinating, whether it's two to four ounce, four to six ounce and it'll also weight the fish into an 11-pound box for us and from there it goes right to the freezer."
"Well, we envision having a very exclusive operation like no other in the world."
"We want to start trying to bring in Canadian fish down here which would more than double our process capacity. It's just a matter of everything getting in place."
"We're talking about working with some of the Canadian First Nations to produce some of their walleye as well, bring it in and help them to distribute. And we see ourselves within 10 years of being the top walleye manufacturer in the entire world."
"Today a fresh hand-caught, line-caught product carries a premium, so that's another advantage for the tribe and for now looking at hook and line as a continued option."
"Red Lake now is turning to making a branded product. Morey's was the company that helped us before get out there and sell all over the world. Now we market currently with wild rice all over the world and now we're starting to bring the fish into the picture with a local freshness and year round availability."
"Our goal with time is to have as much of our products sold online as we possibly get."
"In the future, what most people want to see is that the fish are captured by tribal members, taken to the fishery and then also processed by tribal members, that would be to fillet, and then we'll market those either through the internet or through some type of restaurant sales or just sell them right out of the fishery itself."
"This is a good time to educate our people on historically how special the relationship with the Indian people here is, continues to be with the lake and emphasize that a whole new generation of people need to carry that on."
"Time is passing us slowly. The wind is blowing, it is here and it is there. We wait to hear when we can go back on to the lake, waiting for the walleye to reappear. This walk, this journey, this passion, this waiting -- we are the only generation to grow up without the tradition of fishing. Our parents told us to wait and be patient. We were. Others worked hard on our behalf. We all believed, we all waited; everyone is here and we are ready. Oh, what is this -- a walleye? A gift from the Creator. We are not the first generation to protect our lake but we will be the last generation to grow up without fishing."
"Although my favorite part was the ice fishing, when we went ice fishing. The day was like sunny out and it was really cold. And, yeah."
"But it was fun 'cause we got to out on a boat and fish. I caught a fish. Yeah, I caught a fish. It was a sheephead. That's an ugly fish."
"All the walleye out there, you can go out anywhere out on the lake and you can catch fish."
"Could you do that five years ago?"
"No. It was a lot harder five years ago. We couldn't take them."
"I will probably remember for the rest of my life."
Produced by the students of PROJECT PRESERVE:
Interviews – Red Lake Department of Natural Resources:
Al Pemberton – Director
David Conner – Administrative Officer
Pat Brown – Fisheries Biologist
Herb Mountain – Fisheries Technician
Ron Beaulieu – Forestry Technician
Interviews – Red Lake Fisheries
Charles Barrett, Plant Foreman
Sean Rock, Manager
Interviews – Red Lake Foods, Inc.:
Joel Rhode, Manager
Donovan Sather, Sales Associate
Floyd Jourdain, Jr., Chairman
Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians
Mauarice "Jocko" Thunder
Project Preserve Educator:
Anna Swan Sherwood
Kao Choua Vue
Special Thanks to:
Tom Barrett, Jr.
Red Lake DNR Staff
Red Lake Historical Archives
Red Lake Net News
Red Lake Tribal Council
This project was made possible with the support from the following:
The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development:
Amy Besaw Medford – Director of Honoring Nations
Jackie Old Coyote – Director of Education and Outreach
Eric C. Henson – Research Fellow
University of Arizona
Native Nations Institute:
Ian Record, Ph.D. – Manager of Educational Resources
The Ford Foundation
The Nathan Cummings Foundation
Red Lake High School
The Stepping Stones Foundation
International Water Institute
Prairie Public Television
University of North Dakota
And private donors