Traverse City Record-Eagle


December 11, 2011

Cleland helped cement tribes' fishing rights

He was an expert witness

TRAVERSE CITY — A mention in Charles Cleland's dissertation caught the eye of a tribal attorney.

Archaeological evidence of prehistoric gill nets was cited in the 1970s paper — and launched a side career for the Michigan State University professor and museum curator.

Cleland, an anthropologist, became an expert witness in several Great Lakes Indian treaty fishing court cases from 1974-2008.

Now retired and living in Norwood, Cleland chronicles those years in a new book. "Faith in Paper: The Ethnohistory and Litigation of Upper Great Lakes Indian Treaties" was published this fall by University of Michigan Press.

His self-described "esoteric" dissertation suddenly gained relevance when the Bay Mills Indian Community in the Upper Peninsula became the first Michigan tribe to go to court to fight for fishing rights retained by their ancestors in an 1836 treaty.

Written over the last five years, this 390-page book is the first comprehensive examination of 18 primary and 21 secondary treaty court cases in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Cleland was the only person to be involved in all of the cases.

The decisions significantly changed perceptions of Native American tribes and their fishing, hunting and gathering rights, Cleland said.

The treaties gave Native Americans a different status under the law than other Americans, he said. Native Americans had always had fishing, hunting and gathering rights. The rights were not granted by the state or federal government.

"The string of court victories gave today's Indians a legitimacy in the eyes of the larger population," Cleland said. "It gave them a newfound political sovereignty, real clout and power."

State governments claimed the treaties were "dead" and irrelevant at the time the cases were filed.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources argued that the state had a right to regulate tribal fishermen who used gill nets because Michigan had banned the nets in the 1960s.

State attorneys also claimed that the nets were not native technology but introduced by the French in the early 17th century.

But Cleland's 1966 dissertation, "The Prehistoric Animal Ecology and Ethnozoology of the Upper Great Lakes Region," noted that Michigan's earliest Native Americans had been using the nets at least 1,000 years before European contact.

U.S. District Judge Noel Fox reaffirmed treaty rights for Michigan's federally recognized Ottawa and Chippewa tribes in a landmark 1979 ruling.

Cleland wrote the book as a reference text for academic circles but said other "anticipated readers" include tribal members; scholars; students of history, anthropology and law; as well as a lay audience, which are "crucial to bringing a new understanding to the world of modern Indian tribes in the affairs of the Great Lakes region."

Cleland dedicated the book to "the leaders of native people of the Great Lakes region, both ancient and modern, who fought to preserve the rights and culture of their people."

The 23-chapter book is organized in three parts. The first explores the origins of Native American treaties and includes an analysis of their social, cultural and legal contexts.

The second section looks at specific hunting-fishing and gathering cases in the Upper Great Lakes states. It also provides an ethnohistorical account of circumstances at the time of negotiation, followed by commentary from the lead tribal attorney.

The third part follows the same format for reservation legal cases.

The book sells for $95 and can be ordered through area bookstores or online. For more information, go to

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