Fishing for a faith-filled response to tribal netting

| May 11, 2011 | 0 Comments

Crosier Father Dave Gallus believes a good and faith-filled response to the issue of tribal walleye netting on Lake Mille Lacs would be to respect those who have won the right to do so. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Thousands of Min­ne­sota an­glers will hit their favorite lakes and rivers in search of walleye on this weekend’s fishing opener.

For a select few, the fishing began more than a week ago. On Lake Mille Lacs, the crown jewel of walleye waters in Minnesota, members of the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe have been harvesting walleyes with nets they have strung out in the shallows. They are joined by several other bands from Wisconsin, all of whom won netting rights via the 1999 landmark court decision on a treaty signed in 1837.

The annual rite of walleye harvest by these bands always comes with more than a little tension, as local sport anglers and fish conservation activists in the area complain about the Native Americans rights.

One local fishing guide, Steve Fell­egy, went so far as to announce his intention to catch a walleye before last year’s opener. After he followed through, he was promptly given a citation by the Min­ne­sota Depart­ment of Natural Resources, which he plans to fight in court.

Listening to such public outcry saddens Crosier Father Dave Gallus, who works and lives at St. Therese-Little Flower Mission on the Mille Lacs band reservation. He served as pastor from 2002 to 2009, and continues to minister to about 20 families, both Indian and non-Indian — who call this their parish.

A meaningful environment

As he has gotten to know Native American and Ojibwe culture, he has tried to bring that into the small church that seats about 90. The Book of the Gospels used each Sunday is adorned with a cover made by band member Joni Boswell, who “put in 250 hours,” Father Gallus said. It features well-known Indian symbols such as an eagle, a bear, the northern lights and, of course, Lake Mille Lacs.

Perhaps, the most striking example of the culture can be found on the back wall of the church. High on the wall is a crucifix containing a corpus of Christ with Native Amer­i­can features, providing a meaningful environment, while also offering traditional Mass elements.

“A Christian community is multicultural; it’s open to all,” the 72-year-old priest said. “We should be a witness on the reservation of a respectful community.”

Respect is a word Father Gallus used often in discussing netting. I have been a sport angler all my life, and have fished Mille Lacs. Like others, I have gotten nervous about the tribal netting that takes thousands of pounds of walleye out of the lake before I can fish the opener.

I also have thought of the abuses Indian tribes have endured at the hands of our government and, even at the hands of our church. Father Gallus noted the time Indian homes were torched for no reason by white auth­orities in the 1930s. Native Ameri­cans, also, were often forced off their lands and on to reservations that of­fer­ed little sustanence.

Father Gallus believes that it is important to consider the history when discussing tribal netting.

“It’s a very complex historical, emotional, psychological, physical, moral and spiritual issue,” he said.

Challenged by the past

I felt challenged by his words and description of some of the injustices the Native Americans have suffered. After hearing the stories, I was less inclined to complain about their an­nual walleye harvest, which is more than 142,000 pounds, this year.

I asked Father Gallus if it would ever be possible to create unity be­tween Native Americans and whites, and end the annual tension about Indian walleye netting.

“I have to believe it’s possible,” he said. “That’s part of my faith.”

It’s part of my faith, too. I have hope that everyone — Indian and non-Indian alike — can live in harmony, on the shores of Lake Mille Lacs and everywhere else. I also think that the Catholic Church — both leaders and people in the pews — can and should lead the way in making this happen. We should promote conversation and try to reduce confrontation.

Father Gallus had some ideas about bringing about that healing.

“If we can respect the differences and recognize that they are God-given differences, then we can begin to build harmony and unity and peace that we all strive for,” he said. “It’s all incarnational theology — the word made flesh. This is what Easter is all about.”

So, the next time you’re up north, attend Mass at St. Therese Little Flo­w­er, introduce yourself to a Native American person and tell them you respect them as a brother or sister in Christ. Then, let the healing begin.

Dave Hrbacek is a staff photographer at The Catholic Spirit. Visit his Faith Outdoors blog at

Category: The Outdoors