Issue Date: April 08, 1999

Supreme Court:
Indian Fishing Rights Upheld

The Supreme Court March 24 ruled, 5-4, that several bands of Chippewa Indians in Minnesota retained fishing and hunting rights that were guaranteed to them in an 1837 treaty with the U.S. government. The high court's ruling would permit the Indians to fish and hunt on 13 million acres (5.2 million hectares) of public land without being bound by state regulations that limited the number of fish that could be caught there.

The case before the court stemmed from a 1990 lawsuit brought against the state of Minnesota by the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians. The Indians had sued Minnesota, challenging efforts by state officials to impose various fishing regulations on several members of the Mille Lacs Band. Seven other bands of Indians joined the Mille Lacs Band's suit. Nine counties and a group of resort owners and other landowners joined with the state to argue that the 1837 treaty had expired and that Indians should be bound by the same state fishing and hunting regulations that applied to non-Indians. The state and the tourist industry had expressed concern that the Indians' unfettered access to fishing and hunting on public land would harm the state economy.

The state's argument was rejected by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians. In her opinion O'Connor asserted that the 1837 treaty remained in effect and that the Indians retained their rights under the pact.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined O'Connor in the majority.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote the main dissenting opinion. The dissenting justices contended that the treaty gave only limited rights to the tribe. They also asserted that the privileges provided under the treaty had been nullified by several events and government actions since the treaty's signing, most notably by Minnesota's statehood.

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