Upper Red Lake residents take ‘wait-and-see’ approach on tribal boundary issue

The murmurs have transformed into open conversation among people who work and live around Upper Red about the “what-ifs” of a sustained boundary challenge by the Red Lake Nation.

Fishing Upper Red Lake for walleyes is a popular activity, but boundary negotiations could change that.
Tony Kennedy/Star Tribune/TNS

MINNEAPOLIS – Jon Petrowske's great-grandfather settled in the area of Upper Red Lake in 1907, walking there from the town of Kelliher, Minnesota, after moving from Dakota County.

The family stayed put and Jon – as a member of its fourth generation – ran a fishing camp until recently on the lake’s north shore. It was close to the reservation boundary of Red Lake Nation.

Jonny P mugshot.jpg
Jon Petrowske
Contributed/Jon Petrowske

Petrowske said he's heard murmurs throughout his life that Red Lake tribal leaders wanted to restore the reservation boundary to include all of Upper Red Lake. Currently, the eastern four-tenths of the lake belongs to the state of Minnesota.

Now the murmurs have transformed into open conversation among people who work and live around Upper Red about the “what-ifs” of a sustained boundary challenge. Those conversations were sparked by a recent announcement that it’s a priority of the tribal council to reclaim all of Upper Red Lake.

Al Pemberton
Al Pemberton, director of the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

In maneuverings that took place after an 1889 agreement, Red Lake Chippewa were left with all of lower Red Lake, but maps cut the reservation's eastern boundary through Upper Red Lake. Al Pemberton, director of the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources, told the Star Tribune last month that the broken agreement called for the reservation to include all shorelines of Upper Red and a one-mile buffer of land around the lake. He said lawyers recently took the tribe’s case to Washington, D.C.


“There’s some concern it could become a big issue,” said Petrowske, a business owner and commercial minnow supplier. “There's lots of conversation, lots of concern. You've got businesses, resorts and established homes. It’s going to be very closely watched.”

But for now, he and others say the overall tone is wait and see.

“Because governments are involved, it’ll take some time,” Petrowske said.

Richard Skoe, a former member of the Kelliher City Council who owns Village One Stop convenience store, said it’s hard for him to imagine the area around Upper Red without the winter and summer tourism anchored by Upper Red Lake's premier walleye fishery. According to state records, visitors to Upper Red have harvested 2.8 million pounds of walleyes since 2006.

Economically speaking, Skoe said, the worst hypothetical outcome for the area would be for the tribe to prevail in its effort and close Upper Red Lake to public fishing. “It would be devastating,” he said.

As the tribe’s anticipated challenge takes shape, Skoe said, it’s important to remember that the dynamics of any sustained effort will be both legal and political.

Other observers have hypothesized that the tribe might allow public fishing, even if all of Upper Red gets incorporated into the reservation.

The Star Tribune sought comment on the issue from two politicians representing the area, but neither officeholder responded. One is state Sen. Steve Green, R-Fosston, and the other is Beltrami County Commissioner Tim Sumner, a Red Lake band member.


Robyn Dwight is a member of the Upper Red Lake Area Association, where she heads a movement to fix a growing trash and human waste problem caused by certain ice anglers on Upper Red. The issue stems from longer stays on the ice by “wheelhouse” operators. Their illegally dumped sewage and trash pollutes tribal waters as well as state waters.

Dwight wants Gov. Tim Walz to support a bill in the Legislature that will help make the state a better steward of Upper Red Lake.

“Recent concerns about boundary changes on Upper Red Lake are exacerbated by the extreme waste,” she wrote to Walz. Tribal concerns about the pollution make the legislation “all the more critical and timely,” she wrote.

Dwight said she doesn’t expect tensions around the boundary issue to rise locally anytime soon.

“I just don't want to get into the negative stuff,” she said. “There's nothing I can do about it and I won’t get political.”

Gary Korsgaden of Park Rapids said the Upper Red Lake boundary issue was an agenda item March 29 at a regular meeting of the state walleye work group made up of citizen volunteers. Korsgaden said state Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons only touched on the subject.

“He kind of skipped over it really briefly,” Korsgaden said. “He said it’s out of the DNR’s hands at the federal level.”

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