Michigan’s elected officials are banding together to push for the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians to receive federal approval as a tribe. If the US Department of the Interior (DOI) does approve the status on Oct. 12, state online casino and sports betting gamblers may also benefit.
State senators represent the latest group of Michigan lawmakers to put their support behind the Grand River Bands.
On June 23, that branch of the Michigan Legislature adopted SR-151:
A resolution to urge the United States Department of Interior to approve the petition of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians for federal [acknowledgment].
A resolution with that exact wording, HR-246, sits in a House committee, as well.
On June 27, Sen. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, tweeted about the resolution he introduced:
I want to thank the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians Tribal Council for partnering with me on this resolution, along with my 13 colleagues who cosponsored our work. … Additional appreciation is also due to the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Tribal Council, who affirmed our intentions with their own resolution.
Resolutions aren’t law or tangible action, though.
Enter Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Whitmer Wants DOI Answers
Whitmer expressed her support for the Grand River Bands’ DOI acknowledgment as a tribe by turning down another tribe’s proposed retail casino.
On June 15, she didn’t concur with plans drawn up by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians for a $200 million retail casino in Fruitport Township, Muskegon County. Whitmer wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Debra Haaland that Grand River Bands may want to build its own casino “in the same general area” if DOI acknowledges the tribe.
For Little River Band, it’s an off-reservation casino. For Grand River Bands, it would be an on-reservation facility.
The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is a native sovereign nation with agreements with the federal government dating back to 1795. The Grand River Bands originally included 19 bands of Ottawa people who lived along the Grand River and other waterways in southwest Michigan. Most of the Grand River Bands’ current membership resides in Kent, Muskegon, and Oceana counties.
Even though the $200 million casino had received DOI approval, Whitmer couldn’t allow it. She needed more information from the DOI first.
Whitmer told Haaland in the letter Tribal Business News published:
This has placed me in an impossible position. … Once DOI has acted on the Grand River Bands’ acknowledgment petition, I would welcome the opportunity to revisit this question and ask that you find a way for me to do so.”
That day, the Little River Band called off the casino project “for now.” Then on June 17, the tribe’s leader told MLive that Whitmer’s decision means “development and selling are on the table” for up to 153 of the 233 acres the tribe initially planned to use for the casino.
Larry Romanelli, Little River Band ogema, told MLive:
We were only going to use 60 to 80 of the acres for our casino project, so we have a lot of ideas for development
Grand River Bands Can Have iGaming Plans
If the Grand River Bands are acknowledged as a tribe, they can seek a gaming compact with Michigan under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).
That would potentially make one additional online gambling license available, on top of the 15 current operators.
The Grand River Bands would first have to build a retail casino, like the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan did with Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mt. Pleasant. Then, the retail casino could partner with an online casino operator, or launch its own site.
The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe did so and took the last online gambling operator slot. In April, the Michigan Gaming Control Board (MGCB) approved its Eagle Casino and Sports brand for launch. When TwinSpires shuts down in the coming weeks, that will free up one slot, on the license held by the Hannahville Indian Community and Island Resort. Michigan Sharp has been receiving conflicting reports about what brand is likely to claim it.
However, a Grand River Bands retail casino would open up a brand new online gambling operator slot, bringing the total operators to 16.
Regulatory approval takes time, but for the Grand River Bands, that will seem like the blink of an eye in comparison to what they’ve gone through to get this far. After all, the Federal Register shows that their request for federal acknowledgment goes all the way back to 1994.