West Michigan tribe to challenge initial rejection for federal recognition

By: - February 24, 2023 2:44 pm

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks at the 2021 Tribal Nations Summit, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on November 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Interior has concluded that an Anishinaabek tribe in West Michigan does not meet the “distinct community” requirement needed for federal recognition, which the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians (GRB) says it plans to appeal.

So continues the 30-year struggle by the GRB to become the state’s 13th federally recognized sovereign tribal nation.

The state-recognized GRB, which encompassed 19 Ottawa bands and now has about 600 enrolled members, is based along waterways including the Grand River in present-day West Michigan. Most of its tribal citizens reside in Kent, Oceana and Muskegon counties.

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In a preliminary finding issued by the department helmed by Deb Haaland on Wednesday, federal officials concluded that the GRB failed to provide evidence of a distinct community since about one-third of the tribe’s current membership are enrolled in another federally recognized tribe, and other enrolled members were found to be deceased.

The tribe now has six months to submit evidence to the contrary in order to contest the non-final ruling.

“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,” said GRB Chair Ron Yob.

State recognition provides some limited benefits to tribes. Federally recognized tribes, in contrast, are acknowledged as sovereign nations within states and are provided with funds for health care, tuition, housing assistance and other resources.

The GRB has been recognized as a historic Native American tribe by the state of Michigan since 1996. 

“The Grand River Bands has a long history in Michigan, with agreements with the federal government dating back to 1795, and we are a state recognized tribe. We have support from numerous lawmakers, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, other tribes, business groups, community organizations and West Michigan residents who have and continue to advocate alongside us, and we remain confident we will be granted federal recognition and be able to provide justice and critical resources for our members,” Yob said.

During the Michigan Legislature’s previous session, a House resolution was introduced to support the GRB gaining federal recognition. Two members of Congress and Michigan’s two U.S. senators in November also urged the department to make an expedited decision.

The tribe’s petition was moved to the U.S. Department of Interior’s “active consideration” list in 2013, but had not moved since and faced further delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 12 tribes in Michigan currently recognized by the federal government are the 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 and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

In addition to the GRB, other state-recognized tribes that continue to seek federal recognition include: the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, also known as the Cheboiganing Band; the Mackinac Bands of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians; and the Swan Creek Black River Confederated Ojibwa Tribes 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.