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In the spring of 1989, tensions over Native American off-reservation spearfishing rights reached a boiling point in northern Wisconsin. Anti-spearfishing organizations encouraged the design and deployment of concrete walleye decoys like this one to disrupt off-reservation spearfishing. Such decoys were placed on lake beds where Ojibwe spearfishers would unknowingly strike them, damaging their spears.
Treaty rights issues exploded in northern Wisconsin during the late 1980s when more and more members of Ojibwe tribes began to exercise rights to hunt and fish outside their reservations granted by mid-nineteenth century treaties with the United States government. While many courts had addressed unregulated hunting and fishing over the years, it was not until 1983 that the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that favored the Ojibwe. Known as the Voigt Decision, that ruling confirmed that the 1837 and 1842 treaties between the United States and the Ojibwe guaranteed Ojibwe rights to hunt and fish off-reservation without regulation by the State of Wisconsin.
Many non-Indians who lived in northern Wisconsin rejected the Voigt Decision, believing that it permitted the Ojibwe to take most or all of the State's mandated "safe harvest" allotment of walleye from several lakes. Some feared that spearfishing would effectively close those bodies of water for sport fishing, resulting in severe damage to the area's tourism industry. Many others objected to the Ojibwe tradition of spearfishing during the walleye spawning season, claiming this practice would further reduce the number of walleye available for sport fishing in northern lakes. Organizations like Stop Treaty Abuse Wisconsin (STA-W) and Protect Americans' Rights and Resources (PARR) mobilized their members to protest off-reservation hunting and spearfishing.
The Ojibwe traditionally spearfished at night, using torches to attract fish to their canoes where the fishermen could spear them. Modern Ojibwe employed the same basic technique, but used more modern equipment like electric headlamps, metal spearheads, and motorized aluminum boats.
Confrontations became increasingly violent, aggressive, and sometimes outright racist as the Ojibwe won additional legal support for their spearfishing rights during the 1980s. Because spearfishers had to launch their motor boats from lake landings, these spots became a prime target for the anti-spearfishing protestors. Protestors also used larger motor boats to disrupt Ojibwe fishing on the water itself, leading to many dangerous encounters.
The tension reached its peak in 1989. Early that year STA-W urged its constituency "to use every available means to minimize the slaughter of spawning Wisconsin sport fish" by Ojibwe spearfishers. As part of this effort, STA-W sponsored a contest to find the best concrete walleye decoys to mass produce. Amongst other requirements, decoys had to "have flat bottoms," "reflective eyes," and "be made of concrete at least 2 inches thick." This decoy, purchased at a PARR rally in Minocqua, Wisconsin near the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation on April 15, 1989, has most of the required features.
In response, some Ojibwe responded by announcing a contest of their own, offering a $100 reward to the first Indian to retrieve a concrete walleye from a lake. Rumors also circulated among the Ojibwe that PARR members had warned that some of the concrete walleyes were mined with explosives. No evidence of mined decoys was discovered, but the rumor exemplified the level of harassment, intimidation and potential violence that the protests unleashed.
Under Governor Tommy Thompson, the State of Wisconsin requested an injunction to prohibit Ojibwe spearfishing in order to prevent further violence. On May 5, 1989, federal Judge Barbara Crabb refused the request and chastised the State for attempting to avoid violence by punishing the Ojibwe, who had broken no laws. Over the next couple years, however, Crabb did rule several times to restrict Ojibwe off-reservation rights, including the right to harvest timber commercially from public lands.
On May 20, 1991, the State of Wisconsin declared it would no longer attempt to appeal the 1983 Voight Decision. The cessation of legal challenges, coupled with injunctions against some of the more militant anti-spearfishing protestors helped dampen protests. The Ojibwe agreed to limits on spearfishing harvests and increased tribal efforts to stock and preserve fish and game populations kept predictions of ecological and economic disaster from coming true. By the mid-1990s, relative peace had returned to northern Wisconsin.