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Looking Back: The Fight For American Indian Fishing Rights


As part of our series on 50 Years of Big Ideas, we reported how in the late 1960s Michigan dazzled the nation when it created a salmon fishery in the Great Lakes.

The program had another consequence that no one anticipated. Indian tribes, long denied their hunting and fishing rights, made a stand and the dispute ushered in a new era for Native Americans up north.

A native son returns

When John Bailey came back to the northern Michigan in 1976 he says there wasn't much left of his people. Bailey says most of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians from his generation had moved away.

He did economic development work with tribes in a few southern states and he says Indian culture in the U.S. had advanced during the civil rights movement but not much in Michigan. He says Peshawbestown didn't even have running water.

"I'd work with other tribes where they'd work with General Motors," he recalls. "They had industrial parks, manufacturing plants, paved streets, lights and I come home to Michigan and we're still living back in the 18th Century."

Around the time John Bailey came back another native son returned to Leelanau County. Arthur Duhamel was born Buddy Chippewa, and had been taken from his family at age 5. He was raised by white people and later became a welder, which took him all over the world

"He worked on the Alaskan pipeline. He worked in Saudi Arabia, California, Mexico, all over the place," says Bailey. "World traveler. And everywhere he went he made friends."

Bailey lived with Arthur Duhamel at one point. He says Duhamel was what he calls an "old time Indian", someone who remembered his obligation to his community and shared what he had.

Disputed waters

Arthur Duhamel played a pivotal role in the history of his people. In 1974 he launched a new career as a commercial fishermen. His son, Skip Duhamel remembers it was an old member of the tribe, Geboo Sands, who told his dad to get out there and fish.

"He told him he had to do it. It wasn't even optional."

The question of Indian treaty rights in Michigan was hot at that moment. Sport fishing was taking off in the Great Lakes and the state felt that commercial gill nets were a big threat to a growing industry. Two tribal fishermen in the Upper Peninsula had already been arrested and Skip Duhamel says his father knew he too was going to jail.

"It looked absolutely like you could never prevail in this. And he was really steadfast in this. He's like, 'we're going to prevail in this. We have to!'"

The urgency was about more than fish. The federal government had ignored the poverty in Peshawbestown for generations. As Matthew Fletcher puts it, the federal government just stopped returning the tribe's phone calls in the 1870s.

Fletcher teaches indigenous law at Michigan State University and is a member of the Grand Traverse Band. Fletcher says the tribe needed some way to make the federal government recognize its existence and asserting fishing rights under a treaty signed in 1836 was the way to do that.

"The United States does not sign a treaty with counties or corporations," says Fletcher. "They sign treaties with nations."

Fishing rights became "the push" for recognition of the nation.


During the legal fight the tribes endured a lot of backlash. Arthur Duhamel was put in jail multiple times and his fishing gear was confiscated. He was never compensated.

Sport fishing groups accused the Indian fishermen of plundering the resource and the rhetoric sometimes got vicious. Bumper sticker slogans like "Save Our Trout, Spear An Indian" popped up.

Michigan's attorney general at the time, Frank Kelly, said the tribes enforced no limits on Indian fishermen. He scoffed at the idea Indians had fishing rights. He said they were like prisoners who'd lost a war.

"They had no rights," Kelly said in the documentary A Difference of Rights. "It's a treaty to settle a war. And you just give them what you want to give them."

But Frank Kelley lost. In 1979 federal judge Noel Fox recognized three Indian Tribes in Michigan and their rights to fish on the Great Lakes. One of these was the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

Later similar recognition would be granted to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. It's this recognition that allows these tribes to operate casinos from Manistee to Petoskey that today generate hundreds of millions of dollars for tribal government services.

Unfinished work

Skip Duhamel is proud what his father Arthur did. He says life in Peshawbeston has changed dramatically. Everyone has jobs and the houses have plumbing. There's a resurgence of native language and religion and the eagles have returned.

But he thinks his father's work isn't finished.

Skip Duhamel doesn't fish on Grand Traverse Bay now, what he refers to as The Pond. A number of Grand Traverse Band members do, but he thinks there are too many restrictions so he mostly fishes off Beaver Island.

The restrictions come out of negotiations with the state that have gone on since the court recognized the tribes. In these agreements the tribes have accepted some limits on their treaty fishing rights.

The waters of Grand Traverse Bay have been the most contentious in these negotiations and the resulting rules the most limiting. So Skip Duhamel says the bay is still the "King's Pond", like Sherwood Forest where Robin Hood and his men stole the King's the deer.

The rules for the bay were also a disappointment to Arthur Duhamel. These are the historic fishing grounds of his people and Skip says what his father wanted was for tribal members to be able to fish.

"Every crew person he ever had he encouraged them to get their own vessel and fish for themselves. He didn't want employees. He wanted people to be independent."

Arthur Duhamel died in Alaska in 1992. Today the marina in Peshabestown is named after him.]