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DNR avoids court case by signing off on protest harvest

NISSWA - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources killed a protest action with kindness Thursday, granting a surprise one-day permit to Anishinaabe who had planned to harvest wild rice illegally to provoke a court battle.

Holding up a traditional push pole used to propel canoes through wild rice beds, a member of the group assembled on the shore of Hole-in-the-Day Lake yells support to the ricers Thursday. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls) Video
Holding up a traditional push pole used to propel canoes through wild rice beds, a member of the group assembled on the shore of Hole-in-the-Day Lake yells support to the ricers Thursday. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls) Video

NISSWA - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources killed a protest action with kindness Thursday, granting a surprise one-day permit to Anishinaabe who had planned to harvest wild rice illegally to provoke a court battle.

The 1855 Treaty Authority had organized a protest wild rice harvest on Hole-In-The-Day Lake near Nisswa, Minn., in order to assert the off-reservation gathering rights that are disputed by the state government. Roughly 30-40 reporters and documentarians turned out to witness what could have been a confrontation between the ricers and DNR enforcement officers. In response to the Authority's announcement they would harvest without a license, the DNR had vowed to issue citations to anyone harvesting illegally.

By granting them the permit, however, the DNR apparently avoided having to cite anyone for ricing or having to confiscate equipment, thus temporarily averting the lengthy court challenge that could have resulted in legal recognition of the Anishinaabe's disputed gathering rights.

Col. Ken Soring, the chief of the DNR's enforcement division, personally hand-delivered the permit to organizers during the protest.

Soring told reporters afterwards the permit served to calm the situation down.

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"This is an opportunity to de-escalate this event," he said. "It doesn't preclude the bands from seeking rights in a court matter; it doesn't take a summons to do that."

However, Soring said he did not see issuing a special permit as a long-term solution and that the DNR would "continue to enforce state law" in the matter.

1855 Treaty Authority Chair Arthur LaRose later tore up the permit in front of the news cameras, deriding it as a "permission slip."

However, he said he saw it as a sign the state recognized the Treaty Authority's argument had merit.

"This letter that they gave us that we never requested or applied for, tells us that they know we're in the right," he said. "We're hoping we can work with (the DNR) to manage our resources, our lakes, our gathering rights."

LaRose said the lake was chosen both for logistic convenience and for the symbolism of its name: Hole-In-The-Day was a famous historical Anishinaabe leader and one of the signers of the 1855 Treaty with the federal government.

LaRose said the Authority would likely try to harvest rice again the next day.

Encouraged by the news they wouldn't have their equipment confiscated by the DNR, more ricers gradually brought their canoes to the event Thursday, which quickly took on a relaxed atmosphere. Onlookers set up folding chairs by the side of the road to watch the canoes as traffic whizzed by on Highway 371. Toddlers played in the grass and older children held up protest signs written on recycled pizza boxes.

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Although the ricers may have been stymied for the moment in their attempt to prompt a court case, their plight still received a wide array of media attention. Journalists vastly outnumbered the wild rice harvesters throughout the morning, and outlets as high-profile as Al-Jazeera America came to cover the story.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .

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