Honoring Nations: Allen Pemberton: The Red Lake Walleye Recovery Project

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Red Lake Chippewa Natural Resources Director Allen Pemberton provides an overview of the Honoring Nations award-winning Red Lake Walleye Recovery Project, and illustrates how the program reflects the benefits of Native nations taking over control of their own affairs from the federal government.

Resource Type

Pemberton, Allen. "The Red Lake Walleye Recovery Project." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Alfreda Mitre:

"Our first panelist is Al Pemberton, Director of Natural Resources for Red Lake Walleye Recovery Program. He is a 2006 honoree."

Allen Pemberton:

"Thank you. It's pretty hard to get up here after all the good speeches everybody gave today and yesterday. I'm just a person that worked in forestry, pretty much most of my career. And I'm probably used to talking to trees more than I am people. You talk about the strength of Honoring Nations. It's a real good program. I'm very honored that we won that award. And just the family that comes along with it is spectacular. I brought my mother along. We had some friends down here where I worked for the IHS [Indian Health Service] years ago, a doctor, and we sat down and had supper with them yesterday; [I] hadn't seen them for about 30 years. I just want to let you know -- I forgot to tell you my name. My name's Allen Duane Pemberton. My Indian name is Coming Down to Earth Thunderbird.

I work for the -- When you talk about self-governance and stuff like that, I worked for the Bureau [of Indian Affairs] for 15 years, almost 15 years, when the tribe took over the self-governance program. I was kind of a skeptic to begin with. I was one of the ones, you know, ‘Geez, I'm losing my job.' But the tribe took a big step there and looking back on it now, I'm very glad they did that. To me, working as a Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] employee -- you've got one of them Bureau people sitting right over here -- and one of the things that, to me, as an employee of the Bureau, I was really, I was young then and I was really energetic about what I was going to do. I was in forestry and I seen some of the problems that were happening on our reservation and I wanted to make it better for the timber and stuff like that.

And one of the things, I started a program with all the young students on planting trees. I seen a need for that, that we had a problem with fires and stuff on our reservation. And I was just trying to start at the bottom with all the young ones so they would work their way up to knowing about -- there's actually trees out in those fields and it takes awhile for them to get up to where they're growing. I guess I'm going off on a tangent here, but what happened was I did that for about five years in the tribe. I went to them and asked them for money every year and they'd give us money and the kids came out and we fed them, they planted trees; it was a real good project. One of the things that I feel, in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, looking back on my career, is that the people that work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, not all of them but a big part of them, they don't care. They don't care about us. We're Indian people, this is our land. There was a lot of them that did care but a lot of them didn't. They didn't say, ‘Hey, Al. Good job here. You started a program and it's really working.' Every year I'd have to go to the tribal council and ask for money when the [BIA] Forestry Department had enough money to take care of that. But my supervisors at that time, ‘Al Pemberton?' You know, ‘Pfft! Who cares you're doing that?' But it's just kind of -- I just kind of wanted to start that way.

The self-governance program, looking back on it now, is the best thing the tribe ever did. We're going to do things better than the Bureau would ever have done because we care for our land. We want to be, like Oren Lyons says, the seventh generation. I'm not going to see what happens to our trees and our fish. Our fish, they came back. That's something we can see and it happened. Just miraculously, they came back. But you're looking down as a leader of your tribe; you're looking to your grandkids, your great grandkids. And if you stick around long enough to see some of that, that's the best thing that could probably ever happen to you.

In the walleye recovery, one of the things that me, as a Red Lake member -- we never ceded our lands to the government. We're a closed reservation. And one of the things that happened, my great grandfather, Peter Graves, was asked by the chiefs to come help them because they were having such trouble with negotiations with the government. They wanted to allot our land and the chiefs said, ‘No, we're not allotting our land.' And when they negotiated with them, they were so mad at them. And they had the foresight to, back then, to know that we should keep our land. And they did it in a way that got the government agent mad at them. This walleye recovery process, it's kind of hard for us as Indian people to -- when they went back to Washington, they were so mad at Red Lake. The Red Lake, the chiefs told them that, ‘We want the whole of the lake,' and when it came back later on, they'd cut part of the lake off. The reason, I was told, that some of that happened because there was non-members living up there. And at that time you -- back in them days, you didn't get around. They didn't have very many cars, so they probably didn't even know there was people living up there. And it was hard for us to negotiate with the State of Minnesota. Because why should you negotiate for something they stole from us? That's our land. And to this day, we still think that's our land. There's an imaginary line there. But no matter what you do, as Indian people, we have to, we have to fight for what we have. You have to keep it. It's hard. The Bureau throws stuff out to us and let's the tribes fight for it and I don't think that's right. We should be nation to nation. We're Indian tribes. We're a nation. Give us our money that -- you stole land from us through the centuries and what do we get back for it? A slap in the face. I'm just going to get back to our walleye recovery process. I could go on all day on that but...

The Red Lake walleye Initiative was our -- in 1997, was the first year of the self-governance program and we reached out to the State of Minnesota to explore a partnership to recover the famous Red Lake walleye. One of the things that happened was, the Red Lake fishermen, they voted -- they were at a co-op and they voted their self out of a job. There was over two to three hundred fishermen at the time and they voted to stop fishing because they knew the walleyes were down and we needed to -- they needed to do something. And they sat there and voted themselves out of a job. And we have 70-80 percent unemployment on our reservation. This was a thing that people had done for years. It was in their families, the fishing, the netting, the people made money, the kids helped, the whole family, so it was kind of a culture in our tribe. And these guys voted their self out of a job. They knew it would take -- we said ten years and it ended up eight years. And what happened was some of the council people, at that time, went and asked the government -- some of the fisheries in other places, when they go down, they give them help, as stipends, to go to school or find a different job or anything like that. But, 'No, the Red Lake people, no. We don't have nothing for you. You're just going to have to suck it up and have unemployment on your reservation, more than what it was before.' And that's one of the things that bothers me. They could have come out and tried to help us out a little bit but no, they didn't. Red Lake did it pretty much on their own.

When we negotiated with the State of Minnesota, prior to that, there was no contact or cooperation with the state fisheries on any issues. Essentially, one hand didn't know what the other hand was doing. And Red Lake was the first one to put a moratorium on the walleye fish harvest. It took the State of Minnesota two more years to do a similar moratorium, when Red Lake had already quit two years before that. Red Lake worked with the State of Minnesota and other technical committees to restore the Red Lake walleye, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And through this -- I remember when we sat down, some of the guys said when they first sat down, I wasn't there at that time, but -- when they first sat down they were, all the different divisions sat in separate tables, but after the years went on, we began to trust one another. And I think there was -- we fostered some cooperation and trust between the programs and the Red Lake walleye recovery was a success because of this partnership. We're going forward, we'll be managing using state of the art science, where we have -- every year the catch is going to be measured by what the -- they'll go out and do their test netting every year and find out how many fish we can take in the following year. And Red Lake has a top-notch science team. I think talking about some of the stuff earlier that Red Lake has a real good group of people now that care about our resources, and then that way we pick the people -- through self-governance -- we pick the people that we want, not who the Bureau of Indian Affairs wants. Going forward, I think this whole thing really worked out pretty good.

And in the past, the Red Lake fishery was governed by the Secretary of the Interior using outdated quota systems. Every year it was 650,000 pounds of fish no matter whether the walleyes were low or not. They'd just sign off on 650,000 pounds. Now we're going to, if it's 800,000 pounds this year, next year it might be 600,000 pounds. That's what we're going to go by. We're not going to -- once it gets to that point it just stops. Before, it was kind of driven economically by the fishery people and the cooperative asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs for -- say they got into July and they already hit their quota, well, they just asked the Bureau for another 650,000 pounds and they'd sign off on it. But the tribe is not going to do that anymore. You're borrowing on your next year's catch, and the years to come, and we can't do that anymore and we know that. The tribe will -- we sent out letters to the members and they told us different things that they wanted, more rules and regulations, and it's really worked out pretty good.

The fishery is opening up again, but we're going to use hook and line from now on. We're going to try that. It's kind of a culture shock for everybody [because] a lot of them are used to using the nets and stuff. But we thought that we're going to try it this way and it seems to -- what's going to happen is there [is] going to be a lot of walleyes taken during the wintertime. [Because] as you know, Minnesota's a pretty cold place. So during the winter, you can go out and fish quite a few months without having any problems. So last year the fishing resumed on Red Lake. And we caught a little slack over it because the State, their portion of the lake, they had two walleyes, just a two-walleye limit. So the Red Lake DNR [Department of Natural Resources] and the tribal council set the limits at 10 walleyes for Red Lake members. So we heard about that on the new things that everybody looks at, computers and emails. There's a lot of things people say about, ‘Oh, Red Lake's got ten fish, why do we get two?' But they have a lot more people than we do. And when they go and fish on their side of the lake it's, it looks like a city up there. When they fish on our side of the lake, if you go out on the lake you're lucky to see 200 or 300 people out there. On that side of the lake it looks like a city up there in the winter. It's like a little city there. So we're going hook and line right now, and taking a cautious approach to commercial fishing.

The Red Lake Fishery has completed a $1 million state-of-the-art renovation. This is thanks to a grant from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community tribe. We got a grant from them to refurbish our fishery and we are getting another grant to get some other equipment that is needed. The biggest test for the fishery will be the ice-fishing season. The fish sales will be through the Red Lake Foods. Red Lake Foods -- they're a promising tribal business. We [have] a goal to maximize by selling fully processed products and fillets. Where before, when we used nets, we made a company south of our reservation pretty rich because we sold everything to them in the round, almost everything. Where now we're going to do all of the processing on our own and sell them right from Red Lake. I think that's going to work out better. It'll create more jobs for everybody. We're currently working with a Canadian tribe -- not tribe, there's like seven of them -- and they want a better price for their fish and they're looking at us to get that. That might be another thing that happens to us, where they said they could give us like a million pounds of fish every year, where we would process those and sell them through our fishery.

So that's some of the stuff I have to say. I don't know if I went on a tangent sometimes, but you've got to bear with me. I'm just a guy that works out in the woods. So thanks."

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