Today in 1979, tribes win in court

May 7, 2015

A map from Judge Fox's decision showing the ceded waters of the 1836 treaty.

This piece is the first for The Living Memory Project, an occasional series connecting the past to the present in Northern Michigan.

On May 7th, 1979, Judge Noel Fox ruled in favor of three Indian tribes in a dispute with Michigan over fishing in the Great Lakes.

Judge Fox’s decision was blunt. He called the history of government dealings with Indians a “shameful record of broken treaties and unfulfilled promises.”

He said under the Treaty of Washington signed in 1836, the tribes—Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Bay Mills Indian Community, and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians—still have fishing rights in much of Lake Michigan and some parts of Huron and Superior. These rights, he said, could not be limited by the state in any way.

“The right is not limited as to the species of fish, origin of fish, the purpose of use or the time or manner of taking,” Fox wrote.

Because of this decision, Cindi John and her family—members of the Grand Traverse Band—can now sell lake trout and whitefish out of Grand Traverse Bay. 

A haul of lake trout taken by Treaty Fish Co.
Credit Peter Payette

“They’re what feeds us and keeps the lights on,” she says of the fish. “We’re really blessed that we can make a living like this.”

There are not many tribal fishers in the Great Lakes and the lakes can’t support too many. But the Fox decision also helped the tribes become recognized as sovereign nations by the U.S. government. That opened the way for casinos from Manistee to Sault Ste. Marie. The revenue from those operations supports a wide range of programs for the tribes today.