GRAND RAPIDS — One would be hard pressed to deny the existence of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, whose ancestors were signatories of numerous agreements with the federal government, starting in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville.
But despite a 27-year effort, the tribe’s approximately 600 enrolled members remain in limbo when it comes to exercising their rights as citizens of a sovereign tribal nation. Since 1994, their official attempts to gain federal recognition have been stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of delays within the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, an agency in the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
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COVID-19 provided the impetus for the latest in a long line of extensions imposed by the OFA, which is charged with reviewing the tribe’s petition for acknowledgement and weighing whether it meets the seven mandatory criteria for federal tribal recognition.
Previously, the OFA told the Grand River Bands that it expected to issue a proposed finding on the tribe’s application by April 16, 2020. However, on that exact day, the agency sent the tribe a letter saying it had suspended the process “based on administrative problems caused by the current COVID-19 emergency,” a suspension which continues until the present day.
Until that suspension is lifted, the Grand River Bands’ wait for federal acknowledgement continues.
“If I can do anything before I leave, I’ll get our tribe recognized,” said tribal Chairman Ronald Yob, a direct descendent of Chief Maish-Ke-Aw-She, who was a signatory of the 1855 Treaty of Detroit. For years, Yob has led the tribe’s crusade for federal recognition with an eye toward ensuring future generations never have to go through a similar process.
“It was the intentions of our ancestors with the treaties to provide ways for us to continue our means of living, and that’s what I am trying to do,” Yob told MiBiz. “I’m trying to set some kind of foundation from this time period so that the next generation is going to find it a little bit easier than we had found it.”
Historically, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians included 19 bands of Ottawa people who lived along the Grand River and other waterways in present-day Southwest Michigan, spanning the cities of Grand Rapids and Muskegon. The majority of its current enrolled members live in and around Kent, Muskegon and Oceana counties.
While the state of Michigan recognizes the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, that status comes with few benefits. Only federal acknowledgement unlocks the tribe’s ability to maintain government-to-government relationships, access federal programs and resources such as the Indian Health Service, and exercise its sovereign treaty rights for activities such as fishing.
One stark reminder of the tribe’s tenuous position came during the pandemic when the federal government distributed COVID-19 vaccines to federally recognized tribes. Without federal recognition, members of the Grand River Bands were left to rely on the generosity of other tribes sharing vaccines or had to find their own resources to access them.
Even so, Yob said the tribe remains unfazed: “We’re survivalists. A pandemic’s not going to stop us.”
The BIA did not respond to a request to comment for this story to clarify when the OFA expected to lift the COVID-based suspension for the Grand River Bands’ petition. However, Indian Country observers believe the agency will likely pick back up in late summer or fall when BIA members return to the office, and when new appointees head to Washington.
Lauren Mulhern, an associate in the Grand Rapids office of Rosette LLP, a majority Native-owned law firm with five offices around the country, said the length of time OFA has spent reviewing the Grand River Bands’ petition offers little indication into how the agency might ultimately decide on federal recognition.
Mulhern cites the “really random” and “arbitrary” nature of the federal recognition process, noting that OFA takes 20 years or more to weigh in on some petitions and just a handful of years in other cases.
“Unfortunately, once the petition was submitted, they can supplement information but there’s no way to start the petition anew and get it before the agency fresh,” Mulhern told MiBiz. “If there was any time to exert political pressure, it would be now, while there’s an administration that’s willing to listen.”
‘An injustice to many’
The federal government’s delays in making a determination on Grand River’s petition — which have spanned five presidential administrations — have “eviscerated” the tribe’s rights, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, wrote in a September 2020 letter to David Bernhardt, who at the time was serving in the Trump administration as Interior Secretary.
In the letter, Huizenga noted the delays had forced the tribe to lose out on millions in funding it would have qualified for under the 1997 Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act. In the law, Congress created a fund for certain Michigan-based Ottawa and Chippewa tribes to use to acquire lands to replace the property the government bought from them in the 1800s at a significantly undervalued price. The law set aside a portion of the settlement funding for qualifying tribes that were “newly recognized or reaffirmed” within 11 years of the law being enacted.
As the federal acknowledgement process dragged on and Grand River missed the 11-year deadline, “it lost millions of dollars at the time and continues to suffer the consequences today,” Huizenga wrote in the letter, in which he recounted “very concerning examples of this tribe’s rights being slowly taken away. If the tribe is not recognized soon, it will potentially lose even more rights and will be an injustice to many.”
According to a spokesperson for Huizenga’s office, the Department of the Interior has not yet responded to the congressman’s inquiry after more than nine months.
Tanya Gibbs, a partner at Rosette LLP in Grand Rapids and a descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, said the process for tribes to seek federal recognition has many inherent flaws, as the Grand River Bands’ experience demonstrates.
“Tribes didn’t historically keep written records. We are storytellers and that’s how we tell our history,” Gibbs said. “It wasn’t until European settlers came over here that we started documenting things in treaties. It’s often difficult to find that information. Hiring experts and people in the anthropology field — it’s expensive and it’s hard. We know we’ve been here forever, but actually proving that in a way that the federal government wants us to prove it is a whole other story.”
Beyond the bureaucratic process through the BIA, the Grand River Bands also previously sought a legislative path to federal recognition. In 2005 and again 2007, the tribe worked with former Sen. Carl Levin and current Sen. Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats, to sponsor federal legislation that would have given the tribe an “expedited review” of its petition and granted it federally recognized status if the BIA failed to act within a given timeframe.
The move also had precedent: Both the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians gained federally recognized status in 1994 via legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, that was enacted by Congress.
Levin’s 2007 bill made it as far as a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs before it died.
In testimony before the committee, Yob acknowledged at the time that the tribe was “painfully aware” that using acts of Congress to recognize tribes had “fallen out of favor.” Even so, Yob told MiBiz the legislative path “might be an option back again” given the decades-long delays.
Coming out of ‘hibernation’
Becoming federally recognized would unlock several federal funding sources for the Grand River Bands, as well as enable the tribe to operate a casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Although the tribe previously was linked to a 2007 proposal from the Archimedes Group for a large-scale casino development in downtown Muskegon that hinged on the Grand River Bands obtaining federal recognition, “our tribe and tribal council have never even discussed gaming,” Yob said.
“Archimedes Group — they were financial backers at one time and their motivation was gaming, but our motivation was reaffirmation of our status … of being a federally recognized tribe,” Yob said, adding that securing sovereign rights for tribal members was the primary motivating factor. “If gaming was to come, that’s way down the road. You’re not going to build a house until you own the property.”
While the bureaucratic process continues to play out, Yob said he and his fellow tribal members will continue to press on in the fight to secure their sovereign rights so they can leave future generations in a better place.
“For the sake of our next generation, this group now has to keep going forward, because if we were to let the next younger group of people take over, I would have to think they’d make them start right from the beginning again, and then that will take another 20 years,” he said. “We’re a turtle clan, and that’s our totem. They hibernate for four or five months a year, and then all of a sudden, they’re back to life. I think we’re going to come out of that hibernation stage, and we will take off again.”
Criteria for federal recognition
The Office of Federal Acknowledgement within the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs weighs tribes’ petitions for federal recognition using seven mandatory criteria:
Indian entity identification: The petitioner has been identified as an American Indian entity by reliable external sources on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.
Community: The petitioner comprises a distinct, continuous community and demonstrates that it existed as a community from 1900 until the present.
Political influence or authority: The petitioner has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from 1900 until the present.
Governing document: The petitioner must provide a copy of the entity’s present governing document, including its membership criteria. In the absence of a governing document, the petitioner must submit a written statement describing in full its membership criteria and current governing procedures.
Descent: The petitioner’s membership consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe or from historical Indian tribes that combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity.
Unique membership: The petitioner’s membership is composed principally of persons who are not members of any federally recognized Indian tribe.
Congressional termination: Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the federal relationship.
Source: Code of Federal Regulations, Procedures for Federal Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the first name of former U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee.