Chantal Norrgard: The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission: Tribal Sovereignty in Action

Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood, by Chantal NorrgardWe welcome a guest post today from Chantal Norrgard, author of Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood. From the 1870s to the 1930s, the Lake Superior Ojibwes of Minnesota and Wisconsin faced dramatic economic, political, and social changes. Examining a period that began with the tribe’s removal to reservations and closed with the Indian New Deal, Norrgard explores the critical link between Ojibwes’ efforts to maintain their tribal sovereignty and their labor traditions and practices. Norrgard shows how the tribe strategically used treaty rights claims over time to uphold its right to work and to maintain the rhythm and texture of traditional Ojibwe life.

In the following post, Norrgard explains what tribal sovereignty means and one way that the Ojibwe exercise it.


Sovereignty is a contested term in Native American and Indigenous Studies, but as political scientist David Wilkins has asserted, tribal sovereignty is not the same as Western concepts of sovereignty. It exists as a “spiritual, moral, and cultural force” that propels a tribal community towards political economic and cultural integrity and “mature relationships” with itself, with other groups, and with the environment. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) exemplifies this definition and shows how tribal sovereignty applies to the complex process of decolonization among Lake Superior Ojibwe.

GLIFWC was born out of Ojibwe struggles to exercise their treaty rights in the 1980s. In 1837 and 1842 treaties, Ojibwe Bands in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan collectively reserved the hunting, fishing, and gathering rights in territory they ceded to the United States. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Ojibwe people struggled to exercise these rights in the face of federal Indian policy restricting their mobility and livelihoods. State conservation laws targeted Indians and arrested them for exercising the rights reserved in treaties to hunt, fish, and gather.

This changed in 1983, when the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Seventh Circuit affirmed that Ojibwes in Wisconsin had the right to hunt, fish, and gather off-reservation in what is known as the Voigt Decision. Following the Decision, tribes and the state hashed out the nature and scope of these rights in a series of tense litigation that lasted until 1991.

In order to counter state regulation of treaty rights, Ojibwe leaders from communities around Lake Superior sought to create a governing body that would enable them to reaffirm their treaty rights and to co-manage natural resources and  communicate with nontribal governments. In 1984, 11 tribal governments of Ojibwe Bands from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan met and asserted that they had the authority to organize themselves. They decided that they would use their tribal sovereignty to create a self-regulatory, inter-tribal agency: GLIFWC.

GLIFWC has been instrumental in uniting Ojibwe communities in the midst of their continual struggles to exercise treaty rights. In 1990, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe filed suit against the State of Minnesota because it refused to recognize the Voigt Decision. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only did GLIFWC play an active role in supporting the litigation, but it also brought together Ojibwe people to address one of the darkest events in their history on which the case hinged.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor issued a removal order that lead to the deaths of more the 400 Ojibwe people in what became known as the Sandy Lake Tragedy. Following the tragedy, the Ojibwe staunchly resisted the removal, which led to the suspension of the Removal Order and the negotiation of the 1854 treaty, which established permanent Ojibwe reservations in traditional territory. However, in the 1990s the State of Minnesota asserted in the Mille Lacs case, that the Removal Order of 1850 terminated Ojibwe hunting and fishing rights.

As the case was being heard, GLIFWC organized a series of community events to recognize the Sandy Lake Tragedy and carried out a series of ceremonial activities that they believed were seminal to the determination of the case. These included a Memorial Run, Pipe Ceremony, and creation of a monument at the site of the tragedy, which brought together Ojibwes from throughout the region, including the United States and Canada. Based on extensive historical evidence presented in the case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 in favor of the Mille Lac Band, reaffirming Ojibwe treaty rights in ceded territory. GLIFWC continues to hold a memorial ceremony each year at Sandy Lake to remember the victims and to recognize the critical importance of the Ojibwe exercise of their sovereignty historically that led to their autonomy today.

Currently, GLIFWC serves a myriad of functions surrounding the exercise of reserved hunting, fishing, and gathering treaty rights. The organization consists of a number of departments that deal with nearly every aspect of environmental protection and management, including biological services, administration, inter-governmental affairs, planning and development, conservation enforcement, and public information. GLIFWC produces free publications on everything from Ojibwe culture to invasive species in order to educate tribal members and members of the public. It also hosts and participates in numerous events involving treaty rights, cultural revitalization, inter-governmental relations, and environmental research.

In short, GLIFWC not only embodies tribal sovereignty, but also presents an example of how tribal sovereignty might be put into action for future generations.

Chantal Norrgard is an independent scholar based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her book Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood is now available.