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Governor's Fishing Opener celebrates partnership with tribal nations

Festivities for the 74th Governor’s Fishing Opener were held in Cass Lake and on Lake Winnibigoshish in Leech Lake Nation.

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Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairman Faron Jackson Sr., left, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz fish on Lake Winnibigoshish during the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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CASS LAKE — For the first time in its 74-year history, the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener was held in partnership with a tribal government.

Hosted by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the event celebrated not only the importance of Minnesota’s fishing and tourism industries but also the state’s relationship with Indigenous nations.

“Having the Governor’s Fishing Opener on a reservation is a really big deal,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who herself is an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. “This weekend we’re connected to each other.”

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Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan speaks during a launch ceremony for the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022, at the East Seelye Bay campground near Deer River.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Taking place over two days on May 13 and 14, activities for the event were held across Leech Lake Nation, from a community celebration in Cass Lake on Friday evening to an official boat launch taking place bright and early Saturday morning on shores of Lake Winnibigoshish.

While the Governor’s Fishing Opener marked a notable first through its partnership with Leech Lake, it also celebrated a return to normal following the event’s disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years.

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“There’s also something that’s been missing these last couple of years, just the opportunity to gather with other folks,” Gov. Tim Walz said as he welcomed everyone to the event on Friday evening, “and just to kind of pause and realize how incredibly blessed we are.”

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Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairman Faron Jackson Sr., left, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz fish alongside their boat hosts on Lake Winnibigoshish during the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz watches his line while fishing on Lake Winnibigoshish during the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Those at the Governor’s Fishing Opener were merely a handful of people across the state who took to the lakes and rivers over the weekend to fish, enjoy the outdoors and spend time with family and friends.

“What (fishing) truly is is a community,” Lauren Bennett McGinty, executive director of Explore Minnesota, said during the Friday event. “It brings people together and that’s what it’s doing today, and that’s what it’s doing with a half-a-million other people around the state.”

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Boats line the shoreline during the morning of fishing opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022, on Lake Winnibigoshish.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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A dog looks out onto the water during the morning of fishing opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022, on Lake Winnibigoshish.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

On Lake Winnibigoshish alone dozens of boats took to the open water, finding quiet bays to cast their lines and hope for a bite.

As people across Minnesota kept up their fishing traditions, the Governor’s Fishing Opener carried on some of its own. One of these was the annual competition between Walz and Flanagan over who could catch more fish. This year it was Walz, who caught a 21-inch walleye.

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Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. reels in a walleye during the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022, on Lake Winnibigoshish.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

The event also brought in Indigenous practices for the first time, with Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson, Sr. making an offering of tobacco before fishing began, placing it on top of the water.

Flanagan hopes that upcoming years practices like this will be included in a new tradition for the opener to increase Indigenous involvement.

“For the first time, four Anishinaabe were in the governor’s boat,” Flanagan said after fishing had ended on Saturday. “It’s history, and we’re going to keep doing it.”

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Partnering with Leech Lake for the opener modeled something that Walz has outlined as a priority for his administration: improving the relationship and coordination between the state and tribal governments.

“It’s a fundamental shift over the past few years of how state and tribal relations work,” Walz said. “We want to be the model for the country. We’re getting better results and there’s more trust built up.”

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a launch ceremony for the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022, at the East Seelye Bay campground near Deer River.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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An angler launches a boat on Saturday, May 14, 2022, at the East Seelye Bay boat access on Lake Winnibigoshish near Deer River.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Huber Mill opposition

The event also served as an opportunity for local Indigenous groups to highlight where Walz’s administration has struggled to keep those promises.

Outside of Friday evening’s event, held at the Cedar Lakes Casino and Hotel, members and supporters of Honor the Earth, an Indigenous-led environmental group, gathered for a protest dance calling for a stop to the Huber Mill Project.

The project, a lumber mill set to be built near Cohasset, Minn., and just one mile outside of the boundary for Leech Lake Nation and on 1855 treaty land, has been mired in controversy in part due to a lack of consultation with tribal governments, who only found out about the plans through a press release.

“We’ll be the first to say we’ve seen vast improvements in the state-tribal relations, but these old habits die hard,” Walz said. “The fact is that the chairmen of Leech Lake and Fond Du Lac were right about this, they needed to be consulted in how we did this. So that project is in reevaluation.”

Despite these setbacks, Walz reaffirmed his commitment to improving the state's relations with tribal governments on a basis of respect and partnership.

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"These are sovereign nations, and the state needs to deal nation to nation, state to state with them," Walz said. "That partnership of equals benefits everyone."

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, right, and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, center, present a diploma to a Leech Lake Tribal College graduate during a meet and greet event for the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Friday, May 13, 2022, at Cedar Lakes Casino in Cass Lake.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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Attendees listen to a speaker during a meet and greet event for the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Friday, May 13, 2022, at Cedar Lakes Casino in Cass Lake.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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Smokey Bear, center, stands with two U.S. Forest Service members during a launch ceremony for the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022, at the East Seelye Bay campground near Deer River.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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Attendees line up for a fish fry lunch during the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener on Saturday, May 14, 2022, at the East Seelye Bay campground near Deer River.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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