LAC DU FLAMBEAU – As William Poupart ventures onto the frozen lakes of northern Wisconsin during ice fishing/spearfishing season, he is disappointed to see fewer traditional shelters.
“The way I spear, few others do,” he said. “There are maybe six others from my reserve who continue to do the traditional thing on the ice. Everyone moved into pop-up, portable cabins.
But it’s important for Poupart, 31, that he still uses his tepee made of wool and sticks he picked up and it’s important for him to pass on traditional gestures to his four children, aged 7 to 13 years.
“It’s very important to me to keep this tradition alive with my children and hopefully people in my community will want to learn again,” he said. “It’s like the Ojibwe language. One day it will be a lost art.
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While more and more Ojibway citizens are using the pop-up cabins, many still use traditional spear-phishing techniques.
It’s an experience much like the upcoming sturgeon spearfishing season on the Lake Winnebago system in northeastern Wisconsin for non-tribal people. The practice was taught to European settlers by indigenous peoples of Wisconsin, such as the Menominee and Ojibwe.
“They (the Europeans) didn’t figure this out on their own,” Poupart said.
Non-tribal citizens are legally permitted to spearfish through the ice only on the Lake Winnebago system for a certain period of time, but Ojibway citizens may spearfish off reservations anywhere in the ceded territory. This is the result of US treaty law in exchange for the US taking Ojibwa lands in northern Wisconsin.
Tribal officials say Ojibway citizens are harassed every spring by non-tribal citizens for exercising those treaty rights while spearfishing for walleye, but Poupart said there’s more camaraderie in the community. ice fishing with tribal citizens often on the same lake with non-tribal citizens. .
“Ice harpoon is a bit more accepted than spring harpoon,” he said.
Poupart said he sometimes takes his non-tribal friends with him on his ice fishing process to share his culture.
The first step is to pick up the sticks of the alders before a lot of snow accumulates around his reserve at Lac du Flambeau. He needs to find six to seven sticks of the right shape and size to build his teepee tent.
“They all have to have a certain curvature, as well as a certain length,” Poupart said. “It may take me a few hours to find the right alders for my use.”
He also searches balsam fir trees for piles of branches to use as insulation.
Before doing anything, it’s safe to thank the Creator for providing it.
“Asemaa (ceremonial tobacco) comes with everything I do, from picking branches and sticks to cutting a spearhole to harvesting my fish,” Poupart said.
Then he decides which spot on a particular lake he will set up for hours on the weekend with his children before packing the sticks, branches and woolen blankets onto a sled.
“The areas I like to settle on are long time spots that my family has fished before or I could be on a lake that I’ve never fished or speared before and I’ll research that, either talking to friends who may have fished or are looking for DNR (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) lake information, such as maps,” Poupart said.
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The main catch for winter harpooning in the Northwoods is muskellunge, not sturgeon, although there may be the occasional sturgeon.
The muskellunge is a predator, so Poupart looks for areas that have a lot of his prey, like bluegills and perch, and it’s best if the water is clear so he can see the fish, but not absolutely. necessary.
“It’s nice to have crystal clear water and to be able to see everything on the bottom of the lake and everything swimming in it, but even though it’s hard to see in the murkier waters and I can’t make out the bottom of the lake, the musk shines in a path and is always visible,” he said.
Inside, the tepee-tent is so warm that Poupart can even take off his coat and it has to stay very dark to catch the unsuspecting musky.
“With my traditional style of harpooning, that’s not a problem,” he said. “The branches and blankets I lay on insulate me and the tent and also dampen my noise when I move my body to spear a fish. The only light is from the lake as it is like a portal to another dimension looking into the water.
Poupart practices selective harvesting up to muskies between 80 and 100 cm in length.
“The bigger fish don’t taste as good to me,” he said. “I also try not to throw my spear. I only throw fish that I know I will hit directly behind his head.
Poupart and his children use handmade decoys as lures to attract muskellunge. Recently, he said his kids started carving their own lures and would make adjustments if they found they weren’t “swimming” properly.
It’s all part of a way of life that Poupart says is important to his family as they harvest much of their food locally.
“We have a regular diet of deer meat and fish,” he said. “Three to four days a week, it’s our dinner, all year round. And the fact that we spear and fish throughout the winter helps our excess walleye from the previous spring’s spear season carry us through to the next spring season.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report for America Green Bay Press-Gazette-based corps member covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible donation to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.