Passed down father to son, Ojibwe walleye spearing tradition lives on

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Snowshoeing across a frozen and snow-covered Lake Mille Lacs is a trek not many would make when the temperature registers at 15 below zero. For David Sams and his son Ben, both of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, braving the brutal weather is part of the experience.

“It’s how I grew up,” said Ben Sams. “He’s not going to be around forever, I’m not going to be here forever and what you do between start and finish is always the most important thing.”

The day’s goal is to find pike beneath four feet of snow and ice – a shared goal between father and son. They will both peer through a hole in the ice with a spear in hand - just as their ancestors did. Inside a shelter protecting them from battering winds and bitter cold, the two settle in.

“Before we do anything in the water we always offer tobacco to the Spirit that dwells in this lake,” said David Sams. “As long as we as Anishinaabe people take care of the Spirit, it takes care of us. That’s what I’ve always taught Ben.” 

Once a favorite decoy or lure is selected, the engrained technique of motion from David’s hand and arm brings the decoy to life in eight feet of water.

“We generally won’t take a shot unless we’re right here, directly over a fish,” said Ben. “We don’t normally take any chances.”

No chances were taken for hours, but the time spent between the two chatting about memories of doing just this seems enough.

“When I was a little guy, we’d spear a lot of fish and when we’d set net, we’d get a lot of fish,” said Ben. “And we’d take it around the community to elders and those who don’t have boats, who don’t have canoes, they’re not physically able, they’re not physically well and we’d do that because that’s how we’re taught as Indian people.”

It’s a walleye that finally takes notice of the decoy and comes in slowly to check it out, but then it’s gone, before Ben can make a good thrust of the spear.

“He got spooked by something,” said Ben.

The last opportunity of the day and maybe of the winter – gone. David and Ben trek out with not an ounce of disappointment.

“Anytime we have the chance to come out here and do this, it’s always just a blessing,” said Ben.

The tradition of Ojibwe spearing does not end with the winter. As the northern lakes give up their ice again in the spring, spearing returns. It’s another opportunity to pass down tradition - father teaching sons another method of walleye harvest invoked for generations.

This time, it’s a raw, spring evening. Open water spearing season for the Anishinaabe is underway. On this night, Bradley Harrington of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and his boys are out on Lake Mille Lacs looking for calm water and early walleye.

Just as it was for Harrington 20 years ago, it is a father or elder passing on to the youngest in the tribe - first, an appreciation for ogaa or walleye and second, the skills needed while perched on the bow of a boat to harvest a fish with spear. 

“The teaching is that the fish is giving itself to you,” said Harrington. “So if you’re physically out there, literally eye to eye with the fish, the eyes shining back at you - it’s giving its permission to take them, to take them out of the water.” 

This night it’s dad, but not long ago, it was oldest son Eric taking his first walleye.

“I would let him try, get behind the spear and show him the optical illusion you gotta fight, but then he got one,” said Harrington. “He pulled it in, so at that moment he went from a liability to now he’s a provider. So it was a step toward manhood for him to be able to provide for his family, for his people.”

More than just a fish on the end of a spear for the Anishinaabe, it is an extension of a culture that has teetered on the brink of extinction for more than a century.

“I was told growing up that our culture is dying or our language is dying - not when I’m breathing,” said Harrington. “It’s not going to die when I’m alive. I’m giving it to my son and pass that same idea on to him. It’s not going to die as long as you have it.”