Whitmer rejects Muskegon casino proposal amid strife with neighboring tribes

By: - June 15, 2022 3:28 pm

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

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday nixed a West Michigan tribe’s long-awaited casino project, ending a nearly 13-year effort by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build the $200 million, off-reservation development in Fruitport Township.

The news, though disheartening to the federally recognized Little River Band, was met with praise by a neighboring tribe that has argued the casino would have intruded on its treaty lands.

In a statement Wednesday, Whitmer noted that her ability to make a fully informed decision on the matter was marred by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) failing to provide “key information” while refusing to extend the tight timeline she was faced with.

“I am unable to concur at this time and remain disappointed in the Department’s lack of flexibility in this process,” Whitmer said.

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

She had requested that the federal government promptly decide whether the neighboring Grand River Bands (GRB) — which strongly opposes the Little River Band’s casino project — would be provided federal recognition before Whitmer was made to issue a decision on the project.

The GRB has been seeking federal recognition for 30 years and is currently slated to receive an answer from the DOI on or before Oct 12. Whitmer asked for that date to be moved up, so she could take that decision into account before making hers.

Per an order from former President Donald Trump’s office just weeks before he left office, Whitmer had until Thursday to notify the DOI of her concurrence or non-concurrence.

The GRB argues that the proposed plot for the casino is on their ancestral land. If they are granted federal recognition, they could have the power to build their own development on the land.

“Despite my request, however, the Department of the Interior did not move the June 16 deadline for this decision,” Whitmer said Wednesday. “I asked for additional time so the Department could do their part and give me information I needed to make this important decision.

“The Department of the Interior first needs to decide whether they are providing federal recognition to the neighboring Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. It is critical to have this information before making an informed decision.”

Whitmer had asked the DOI to decide on federal recognition for the Grand River Bands no later than June 1, or else extend her June 16 deadline until after that decision was made. That request was denied.

The casino resort had been proposed for 60 acres in Muskegon County. The Little River Band had argued that its addition would bring in 1,200 permanent jobs and more than 1,000 construction jobs. 

Larry Romanelli, the tribe’s Ogema (executive branch leader), said in a statement Wednesday that tribal members are “absolutely devastated” by Whitmer’s decision.

“Our tribe is proud that over the last 12 years, we did everything right,” Romanelli said. “… While we disagree completely with Governor Whitmer’s decision, we respect [that] she has the authority to make it. The Muskegon Casino Project cannot be revived and it has therefore concluded.”

The Little River Band is one of 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan. The GRB, which has been a state recognized tribe since 1996, seeks to become the 13th. It has been on the DOI’s “active consideration list” since 2013.

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

GRB Chairman Ron Yob praised Whitmer’s decision to reject the casino project Wednesday.

“We applaud Gov. Whitmer for her thoughtfulness and for doing the appropriate due diligence to make this important decision,” Yob said. “With this decision now made, the Grand River Bands will finalize our federal recognition with the potential of pursuing economic development activities in the Muskegon area.

“On behalf of our hundreds of tribal members, we applaud Gov. Whitmer for issuing a nonconcurrence decision while our petition for federal recognition is still a pending matter.” 

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.

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

  • Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC)
  • Grand Traverse Bay 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.