Tribal affairs experts say the federal government erred in determining that the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians failed to meet the criteria for federal recognition and remain optimistic that the tribe will successfully obtain the crucial designation.
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment issued a proposed finding in late February that the tribe did not meet one of seven criteria for a “government-to-government relationship with the United States.”
The position at least temporarily blocks the Grand River Bands’ decades-long attempt at federal recognition, which would bring numerous benefits to the tribe and its members. However, the tribe has six months to submit materials or additional information that may overturn the agency’s finding.
Larry Rosenthal, principal of Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Spirit Rock Consulting LLC, called the Office of Federal Acknowledgment’s proposed finding “disheartening … but not insurmountable by any means.”
The DOI essentially said the tribe “needs to go back and show more continuity” in its lineage and presence as a tribe.
“You have these time periods where there was some lapse to fill in,” Rosenthal said. “The tribe’s going to do it. But it’s a frustrating process.”
Tribal Chairman Ron Yob declined to comment for this story, but said in a statement last month: “While we disagree with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s initial findings on our petition, we are confident we can provide the additional information requested and ultimately achieve the long overdue federal recognition for our tribal members.”
A favorable ruling by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment would have allowed the tribe to establish government-to-government relationships with the federal government, access federal programs and resources such as the Indian Health Service, and exercise its sovereign treaty rights for activities such as fishing.
According to the notice filed on Feb. 23, the Grand River Bands appears to have lacked documentation showing that a “predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.”
A community is defined under federal law as “any group of people which can demonstrate that consistent interactions and significant social relationships exist within its membership and that its members are differentiated from and identified as distinct from nonmembers. Community must be understood in the context of the history, geography, culture and social organization of the group.”
The notice cites the Grand River Bands’ historic descent from Ottawa bands that lived in areas surrounding the Grand River.
“While the Petitioner’s members appear to descend from these historic Grand River-area bands … the Petitioner has not demonstrated that its members comprise a distinct community that has existed as a community through time,” according to the federal notice. It adds that the Grand River Bands “came together beginning in 1995 from several independent groups.”
Long road to recognition
The Grand River Bands first petitioned the federal government for recognition in 1994. The DOI started its initial review in 2005, and the Grand River Bands was placed under “active consideration” in 2013. The DOI then approved a series of extensions from March 2016 to April 2020 before pausing the consideration during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government resumed its consideration in April of 2022.
Acting as an informal adviser, Rosenthal is a longtime friend of Yob and is closely familiar with the tribe’s interest in federal recognition. In the early 1990s, Rosenthal was a staffer for the late Congressman Dale Kildee when multiple Michigan tribes sought federal recognition.
As an alternative to the cumbersome administrative petition process, Kildee helped lead a push in 1994 to pass legislation that granted federal recognition to three tribes in Michigan: the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
According to Rosenthal, Kildee always sought to include the Grand River Bands in that legislation. Grand River Bands leaders and members were resistant to and skeptical of the federal recognition process, and ultimately opted against joining the effort at the time.
Supporters of the Grand River Bands point out that the tribe was a signatory to several treaties with the federal government dating back hundreds of years. They also note that Department of the Interior officials previously backed awarding the Grand River Bands millions of dollars in funding under the 1997 Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act. However, delays in the federal recognition process have prevented the tribe from recouping that funding, as U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, said in a letter to federal officials in September of 2020.
“There’s no denying the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians as a tribe,” Rosenthal said. “What I find most disheartening is that, over the years, DOI had taken the position that they are a tribe.”
Aldo Salerno, a former historian with the Office of Federal Acknowledgment who researched the tribe’s petition for five years, believes federal officials erred in their determination that the tribe does not meet the criteria for federal recognition. He told federal officials in 2021 that the “evidence shows the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians have a social community connected by extensive kinship ties since first sustained contact with non-Indians.”
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. Ancestors of the current members were signatories of numerous agreements with the federal government, starting in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville.
The majority of its current enrolled members live in and around Kent, Muskegon and Oceana counties.
“The current researchers at the Office of Federal Acknowledgment are stuck in the 19th century and saddled with an obsolete view of what constitutes a modern Indian tribe,” Salerno said in an emailed statement to MiBiz. “Even most federally recognized tribes could not meet the outdated criteria OFA is using to show tribal existence. OFA needs to get into the 21st century.”
Salerno further argues that federal regulations do not permit such a limited finding based on allegedly failing to meet one of seven criteria for federal recognition.
“This finding should be withdrawn by the department and redone because it does not meet its stated goals for the recognition process — timeliness, consistency, transparency, rigor, and integrity,” Salerno said.