Welcome to the Red Lake Nation. Photo by Michael Meuers / Red Lake Public Relations

'The tribe sees the lake as a relative': Red Lake Nation protects homelands

Large MN DNR Delegation Visits Red Lake Tribal Council
Commissioner of MN DNR: Sarah Strommen/Seven Staff Attend
Red Lake Public Relations

A large delegation from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) visited with the Red Lake Tribal Council at its regularly scheduled monthly meeting on Tuesday, September 10, 2019.

An invitation from the Council was sent to the office MN DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen via the tribe’s Government Affairs/MN person, (and 2018 endorsed GOP candidate for Lieutenant Governor) Donna Bergstrom. Bergstrom is a Red Lake member living in Duluth.

Strommen was serious about networking, meaningful conversation and problem solving. Assistant Commissioner, Bob Meier, and Region 1 Manager, Theresa Ebbenga joined the Commissioner at the guest table at the front facing the Tribal Council to begin the conversation.

Sprinkled among the audience, five other guests from the MN DNR stood from time to time to answer questions in areas of their expertise. They included: Fisheries Regional Manager Henry Drewes; Ecology & Water Resources Regional Manager Nathan Kestner; Forestry Regional Manager Adam Munstenteiger; Planner Kerry Ross; and Enforcement Lead Pat Znajda.

From left, Commissioner of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Sarah Strommen, Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier and Region 1 Manager Theresa Ebbenga address leaders of the Red Lake Nation during a tribal council meeting on September 10, 2019. Photo by Michael Meuers / Red Lake Public Relations

Conversation was lively as Council members, Chiefs, staff and community members asked questions and expressed viewpoints on a variety of topics including; Northwest Angle trespass, gathering on ceded lands, and forming a multi-governmental zebra mussel task force similar to the highly successful Red Lake Walleye Recovery Project of several years ago.

Perhaps the biggest concern for Red Lakers was the invasion of zebra mussels in the North (or Upper Red) Lake. Lower Red Lake is the last big walleye lake left in Minnesota free of invasive species. (Red Lake is the largest lake in the US wholly contained within one state.)

That’s why zebra mussel larvae discovered recently in Upper Red Lake put tribal leaders and Red Lake DNR into crisis mode. There is huge concern that the mollusk will spread to Lower Red Lake, threatening walleye habitat, and with that, the tribe’s economy, and cultural and spiritual legacy. A big part of who Red Lakers are is threatened.

Many Red Lakers are frustrated and angry that they may suffer from poor environmental policies and enforcement by governments outside the reservation. Only tribal members are allowed to fish the reservation-controlled part of the lake, which is why it has stayed so pristine.

The issue is particularly irksome to Red Lake members as there is no doubt in any Red Laker’s mind, that the entire lake should be within reservation boundaries.

Treaties and/or land agreements reduced the size of the Red Lake Reservation by millions of acres in the late 1800’s. As more and more land was taken, perhaps the most important issue on which Red Lakers never faltered, was retention of the entire Lake. In these original agreements, the entire Red Lake was within reservation boundaries.

However, (there is evidence of skullduggery) by the time the legal papers arrived in Washington, D.C., the east 40% of Upper Red Lake was outside Red Lake boundaries. No longer under their protection. Its shoreline relying on the stewardship of the state, and non-member cabin owners and resorts.

Based on where the young zebra mussels were found, it is most likely that non-member anglers brought them to the lake from the east.

The MN DNR doesn’t have the budget to watch every lake all the time, of course, and neither does the tribe. The reason Lower Red Lake is so healthy, isn’t because of any massive boat inspection program. It’s because of tribal values. “The tribe sees the lake as a relative,” noted Tribal Secretary Sam Strong.

This is a big deal for Red Lakers. This isn’t about recreational fishing; this is about putting food on the table. Hundreds of Red Lake families rely on fishing the great lake for subsistence, and income through the tribally owned Red Lake Fisheries.

Red Lake in Minnesota. Photo:

Nevertheless, the visit was very cordial, respectful, with a concentration on problem solving with all parties agreeing to work together. “We’ll bring forces together. We’ll attack this like the Walleye Recovery Program,” said Hereditary Chief and a former fisheries manager, Dan King. “We’ll be a testing ground to find a solution and stop this invader.”

“Who better to manage the lake than its indigenous residents who consider the lake a relative?” wondered one audience member. “The DNR should hire Red Lake members to watch over the accesses to Upper Red Lake,” suggested another.

Miskwaagamiiwizaaga’iganiing (Red Lake)
These waters nourish the wild rice and walleye that the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians depended upon for survival. These waters were, and are, the very pulse of Ojibwe traditional culture.

Indigenous Peoples do not separate themselves from the land or nature. Harmony and the “oneness of all things” are at the core of their World View. These principles are the driving force behind the Red Lake Band of Chippewa’s natural resource management programs.

This property under discussion, called Red Lake, is my property. These persons whom you see before you are my children. They own this place the same as I own it. My friends, I ask that we reserve the whole of the lake as ours and that of our grandchildren hereafter.” ~Chief May-dway-gwa-no-nind, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, 1889

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen speaks at a press conference at William O'Brien State Park in Scandia, Minnesota, on June 6, 2019. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (D), who is a citizen of the White Earth Nation, is at her side. Photo: Tony Webster

Sarah Strommen, MN DNR Commissioner 
Appointed by Governor Tim Walz on January 7, 2019, Strommen is formerly the DNR’s assistant commissioner, she now oversees a DNR staff of about 2,700. 

Prior to coming to DNR in 2015, Strommen served as assistant director at the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) before becoming acting deputy director. She previously served as policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and as associate director of the Minnesota Land Trust. She has a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University.

Strommen is an avid outdoors person, spending family weekends fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, camping, and hiking.

The story was written and reported by Michael Meuers, Red Lake Government and Public Relations.

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