Indian spearfishing drew national attention in its early years, and each spring from 1985 to 1990, I packed my bags and cameras and spent much of April in Minocqua, covering it for the Wausau Daily Herald.
I have many memories of those times, but protests at four lakes are particularly vivid.
The first was the night in 1985 when the "Rainbow 33" sat down in the sand near the boat landing at the Rainbow Flowage east of Lake Tomahawk and refused to move.
The authorities were ready for them. The protesters did not struggle as they were handcuffed with plastic ties and hauled off in a waiting school bus. They said they just wanted to make their point -- that the spearing of walleyes was depleting the resource and hurting tourism. They claimed it was not the racial issue that the media was portraying.
I was at Butternut Lake west of Park Falls on the last night of spearfishing in 1985. The lake was symbolic for the Chippewa, and they wanted to spear only a few fish to end the season. Several members of the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department were there, an impressive and intimidating group with their tall, shiny boots, uniforms and police dogs. Helicopters hovered overhead, shining lights down on the crowd. Several hundred protesters were gathered, many on a grassy knoll overlooking the landing, and several hundred Indian sympathizers faced them. The Indian sympathizers slowly pushed forward, and suddenly everyone realized that the spearfishing supporters had taken control of the knoll. It was amazing there was no violence, considering the strong feelings running through both sides.
Law enforcement officials from throughout the state, along with Department of Natural Resources Secretary George Meyer, were present on a snowy mid-April night in 1989 at North Twin Lake in northeast Vilas County. Bright lights illuminated the huge flakes blowing in the wind as the Chippewa spearers backed their boats down the landing. At least four protesters started lobbing rocks onto the tops of the spearers' pickups and into their boats. Law enforcement put an end to it, but it was a game of cat-and-mouse with the protesters during the snowstorm.
The worst night of protests was May 6, 1989, the night before the opening of hook-and-line fishing and the first time the two seasons overlapped. Tom Maulson, Lac du Flambeau tribal judge and leader of the band's spearers, had assured me they would not go out that night because he would be in Madison that day to find out whether Judge Barbara Crabb would end the spearfishing season early.
She ruled in favor of the Indians, and when I arrived at Trout Lake, the scene was electric, with 1,000 protesters and lots of law enforcement. The Indians were beating their drums as they normally did at the landings, and the protesters were hurling racist remarks and other vulgarities across the police line separating the two groups. There were small confrontations, but no violence.
Then group hysteria took over, and the protesters pushed through the police line. I was taking pictures in the line of protesters and could see the fear in the faces of the police and protesters. The police did not want to harm the protesters, who weren't violent and sat down after they broke through. Two hundred were arrested.
I took my pictures, handed the rolls of film to a courier and was ready with my cameras around my neck in case violence broke out. Then a large man told me to "put that camera down." He sounded like he wasn't going to say it twice. My film was already on its way to Wausau, so I complied.
In 1991, Judge Crabb issued an injunction against protesters who engaged in violent behavior at sites where the Ojibwe fished. The protests stopped, and I and the rest of the media did not return.
Rob Orcutt was a photographer for the Wausau Daily Herald for 36 years before retiring in December 2009. He resides in Wausau.