5th December 2023

More than 30 years ago, Wisconsin signed a law that required schools to teach about Native American history, culture and tribal sovereignty. It’s known as Act 31.

The law was created in part because of violent controversy over Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) spearfishing rights.

Spearfishing protests

J P Leary, a UW-Green Bay associate professor of First Nations Studies, recounts the spearfishing controversy in his book, “The Story of Act 31.”

In the 1980s, members of the Wisconsin bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa were exercising their treaty rights to spearfish walleye and other fish in non-reservation lands in northern Wisconsin.

They were met with protests by white sport fishermen and their allies, who said it wasn’t fair that the Ojibwe didn’t have to adhere to the same restrictions, and claimed that spearfishing would wipe out fish populations.

A 1989 Milwaukee Sentinel article about spearfishing protests at Trout Lake in Vilas County.

Milwaukee Sentinel



A 1989 Milwaukee Sentinel article about spearfishing protests at Trout Lake in Vilas County.

The protests became violent and overtly racist. The controversy was dubbed “The Walleye War.”

“There was a real fear that someone was going to get killed at a Wisconsin boat landing,” Leary says. “There were examples of pipe bombs and people being shot at with firearms … people being harassed, having their tires slashed.”

Leary argues in his book that the spearfishing protests were an outcome of the lack of education about Native American tribal sovereignty in Wisconsin schools.

“If you were someone who the only thing you learned about Native people was from school – you didn’t learn much,” Leary says. “Your opportunities to learn were very, very limited.”

Treaty rights

Ojibwe people lost the vast majority of their land in modern-day Wisconsin through two major treaties, signed in 1837 and 1842.

In the treaty negotiations, Ojibwe leaders reserved their right to continue to hunt, fish and gather in the territory they were ceding to the U.S. government.

This map shows tribal lands in Wisconsin circa 1800, along with present-day Native Nations.

This map shows tribal lands in Wisconsin circa 1800, along with present-day Native Nations.

“They reserved their right explicitly to maintain their way of life,” Leary says.

For more than 100 years, those rights weren’t recognized by local and state governments. Ojibwe people who hunted and fished off-reservation were subject to tickets, fines and other punishments.

That changed in 1983, when a federal court upheld the Ojibwe’s rights to hunt and fish on ceded lands. The case was called Lac Court Oreilles Band of Chippewa Indians v. Lester P. Voigt.

The ruling meant Ojibwe tribal members could openly spearfish on lakes outside of their reservations — and they didn’t have to follow state regulations. What followed were the violent protests of the Walleye War.

“[It was] harassment of people legally exercising their court-affirmed reserved rights,” Leary says.

An education solution

The spearfishing protests were embarrassing and costly for the state of Wisconsin. State leaders decided education could help prevent future controversies.

In 1989, Gov. Tommy Thompson signed a biennial budget bill that included Act 31.

“The heart and soul of Act 31 speaks to K-12 social studies curriculum,” Leary says. “It requires school districts to provide instruction in history, culture and tribal sovereignty at least twice in the elementary grades and at least once in high school.”

‘Uneven’ implementation

Leary says Act 31’s directive leaves room for interpretation. What exactly does the requirement to “provide instruction” mean?

UW-Green Bay Associate Professor J P Leary is author of 'The Story of Act 31.'

UW-Green Bay Associate Professor J P Leary is author of ‘The Story of Act 31.’

“‘Provide instruction’ can mean a whole range of things,” Leary says. “‘Provide instruction’ can be very minimal. And that minimum has never been defined.”

Leary writes that the state Department of Public Instruction has no enforcement mechanism to check whether school districts are adhering to Act 31.

Lary worked at DPI, as an Act 31 consultant, from 1996-2011. He notes that the DPI staff overseeing American Indian Studies has been cut to just one person.

Black River Falls is an example of a school district doing Act 31 well, Leary says.

“They found a way to infuse this content into everything they were doing in their social studies curriculum,” Leary says.

For example, he says Black River Falls includes the nearby Ho-Chunk Nation’s government and court system in its civics lessons.

As a college professor, Leary surveys his students about their knowledge of indigenous peoples.

“They tend to report that way more often than not what they learned was from mass media and not from school,” Leary says. “They cite ‘Brother Bear’, ‘Pocahontas’, ‘Twilight’ as their sources of information rather than what they learned from their teachers.”

Leary says, Act 31 was helpful for school districts that wanted to more meaningfully teach about Native American history and issues. Still, he says the law hasn’t been carried out to its full potential.

Resources for Wisconsin schools to teach about Native American history and culture can be found here.