Whitmer asks Interior secretary to decide on federal status for Grand River Bands 

Democrat weighs in on land dispute between two state-recognized tribes

By: - May 24, 2022 1:27 pm

Nominee for Secretary of Interior, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, speaks after President-elect Joe Biden announced his climate and energy appointments at the Queen theater on December 19, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Haaland is the first Native American nominated to serve on the presidential cabinet. | Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has asked the federal government to promptly decide a West Michigan Ottawa tribe’s federal status, in order to make a better informed decision on whether to grant a neighboring tribe’s request for a casino in Muskegon County.

The federally recognized Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, originally descended from villages of the Grand River Bands (GRB) in what’s now West Michigan, are seeking to implement a casino on 60 acres in Muskegon County.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Lansing Community College, Feb. 16, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Per an order from former President Donald Trump’s office just weeks before he left office, Whitmer has until June 16 to tell the Department of Interior (DOI) whether she concurs with the effort.

But there is a big wrinkle in the process. The GRB, which has been seeking federal recognition for 30 years and is set to finally receive that decision later this year, strongly opposes the Little River Band’s casino plan as it says it would intrude on its treaty lands.

“I am deeply concerned and disappointed that another tribe is attempting to pressure the Governor to give away some of our homelands in order to build an off-reservation casino on the treaty lands of our Tribe,” GRB Chairman Ron Yob said in a statement.

With this in mind, Whitmer sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Monday requesting that the DOI move up its consideration of the GRB for federal recognition. If the GRB is granted that recognition, it is unclear how the decision would be made as both tribes would be federally recognized as sovereign states.

Whitmer wrote to Haaland about the impending June 16 deadline, noting that it is “particularly unworkable because DOI is still considering whether to acknowledge the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians.”

“My concurrence with the Little River Band’s two-part determination could frustrate the Grand River Bands, which may wish to open their own gaming facility on tribal lands not far from Fruitport Township,” Whitmer writes, all while the Grand River Bands still does not know how likely they are to be federally recognized.

Currently, the DOI is scheduled to issue a proposed finding on the federal recognition matter on or before Oct. 12. That is four months after Whitmer is required to decide whether to concur with the Little River Band’s two-part determination.

“This is a problem of DOI’s making, and it is a problem that DOI must solve,” Whitmer said in the letter. “DOI should issue a proposed finding on whether to acknowledge the Grand River Bands no later than June 1, 2022, so that I can take it into account in deciding on the Little River Band’s two-part determination.

“If this is not possible, DOI must extend the June 16 deadline until after the DOI has issued a preliminary decision on the Grand River Bands.”

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians has been a state recognized tribe since 1996. It has been on the DOI’s “active consideration list” since 2013, and is on the final stretch of potentially being federally recognized after delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department is now led by Haaland, the federal government’s first Indigenous cabinet member.

If granted, the Anishinaabek tribe would become the state’s 13th federally recognized sovereign tribal nation.

The GRB originally encompassed 19 Ottawa bands and now has about 600 enrolled members. It is based along waterways including the Grand River, with most tribal citizens residing in Kent, Oceana and Muskegon counties.

Several Michigan lawmakers have weighed in and expressed support for the GRB to gain federal status. The tribe has also launched digital ads and billboards in the Lansing area to further their cause.

“The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians applauds Gov. Whitmer for urging the U.S. Department of the Interior to promptly issue its proposed findings on our federal recognition petition,” Yob said Tuesday. “Our tribal citizens desperately need the resources afforded to federally recognized tribes such as healthcare, housing and education.

“I also want to thank our country’s first Native American Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, for putting our petition back on active consideration. We know that with the support of the Governor and members of the Michigan Congressional delegation, our petition will receive fair and swift consideration. Furthermore, I want to say ‘Mii Gwitch’ (thank you) to the many tribal leaders in Michigan that have supported our recognition petition.”

Yob also noted his concern about the Little River Band’s attempt to build the Muskegon Casino, calling it “morally wrong and unjust.”

“We call on Governor Whitmer to reject this cynical effort,” he said. “I have the greatest respect for Governor Whitmer, and she fully understands the history of the tribes in Michigan. It is shameful that another tribe would seek to alienate our people from the lands of their ancestors. I am hopeful that Governor Whitmer will preserve and protect the lands of the Grand River Bands for generations to come.”

The 12 tribes in Michigan currently recognized by the federal government are: 

  • Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC)
  • Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians
  • Hannahville Indian Community
  • Keweenaw Bay Indian Community
  • Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians
  • Little River Band of Ottawa Indians
  • Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians
  • Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (Gun Lake Tribe)
  • Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians
  • Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians
  • Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan 
  • Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

In addition to the GRB, other state-recognized tribes that continue to seek federal recognition include: 

  • Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, also known as the Cheboiganing Band, located in Northern Michigan’s Burt Lake area (mostly Emmet and Cheboygan counties)
  • Mackinac Bands of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians, based in St. Ignace
  • Swan Creek Black River Confederated Ojibwa Tribes of Michigan, which is a standalone offshoot of the Mount Pleasant-based Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.