Fish netting connects Ojibwe with ancient roots

The spring netting of walleye by Native Americans seems to many as outdated, but a closer look reveals a practice steeped in family and ancestral importance that still links a community to its past.

Conditions are not great, but fathers and sons are off on a choppy Lake Mille Lacs. It’s the time of evening when nets are set for spring walleye.

“It’s like any other tradition from any other culture here in the United States and around the world, especially when it goes to grandfather-to grandson tradition of inter-generational giving of spirit energy in the eyes of the Anishinaabe,” said Bradley Harrington of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Setting nets means working in close to the shorelines, where walleye congregate at night looking for spawning beds. The buoyed and anchored nets extend to the bottom; fish that swim in are caught by the gills.

Netting for the Ojibwe goes back generations. The shorelines and deeper water of the lake have fed the Anishinaabe for hundreds of years. In Anishinaabe culture, catching many fish meant efficiency in feeding many people. Nets did that then and still do today. The equipment has changed as ancient plant fiber nets have been replaced with nylon.

Rodney Dorr, an Ojibwe tribal member, still sets nets every year, just as he did when his father was still living. Working from the shore suits his age better now, though. Last night’s set and this morning’s harvest is exactly what he’d hoped for.

“I didn’t count, but I’d probably say 25 to 30,” said Dorr. “So, I’m happy.”

Morning has Bradley Harrington and his oldest son, Eric, back in the boat and off to check last night’s set.

“We’ll cruise past it and then we’ll see what’s in there because they’re going to want to come from the south and go north of it that way our nose is into the waves,” said Harrington.

For young Eric, this is a learning experience. He’s the next in line. Pulling the nets soon becomes a two-person job.

“Good job though, son,” said Harrington as he helps his son bring in the net. “I think this side is the heavy side.”

The two check their haul, dropping them in the bucket as they untangle them from the net.

Other tribal members checked their overnight nets for a bounty that is seasonal and fleeting on Mille Lacs, but also monitored very closely by conservation officers.

Harrington and his son’s morning harvest of netted walleye are weighed, measured and sexed, as are most others that come off the big lake.

As this ancient method of harvest meets modern science, the Anishinaabe do not overlook the spiritual currency of a fish that kept a nation of Ojibwe fed hundreds of years ago and still carries so much value for all today.

“You get physical nourishment from the fish as a source of protein and other nutrients, but also through a spiritual compact with the fish between the fish and the Anishinaabe that was mediated by the gichi-manidoo, spiritual energy transfers also for spiritual nourishment,” said Harrington.