After playing what may have been the most-protracted game of “telephone” in history with the federal government, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians were formally rejected by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment on Feb. 23. That decision came 29 years after Grand River applied for recognition with the U.S. government.
The unwelcome result at the hands of the feds, means the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians can appeal. But, it also means the State of Michigan could side with a Little River Band of Ottawa Indians plan for a casino in Fruitport. Last November, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer referenced the Grand River Bands uncertain status as her reason for holding off on support for the Fruitport project.
The Grand River tribe is based in Grand Rapids, and it’s thought that Whitmer was holding back on state approval for the Fruitport casino because there was fear it would spur a fight over jurisdiction with Little River, which is based in Manistee.
Grand River Bands Can Appeal Federal Denial
In its rejection letter to the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, the OFA stated that the tribe does not meet necessary requirements as a Native American tribe.
The language states that a petitioning tribe must demonstrate that a “predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.” It further states that the Grand River Bands “is not an Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law” due to a failure to meet the seven criteria set out in DOI statute.
The ruling came after as many as 15 extensions were requested by the DOI to make its decision, nine since 2017.
The Grand River Bands claims to have as many as 500 members, and is seeking the benefits afforded with status as a federally-recognized tribe. Leaders also say they seek to establish their own sovereignty in accordance with tribal history.
The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians has 180 days from Feb. 23 to file an objection and challenge the ruling by the federal government. This may include efforts to answer some of the charges made by the DOI in regards to the establishment and legitimacy of the group.
“[W]e are confident we can provide the additional information requested and ultimately achieve the long overdue federal recognition for our tribal members,” Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands said in response earlier this month.
Will Whitmer Clear way for Little River to get its Casino?
With the issue of Grand River Bands and federal recognition decided, it could be enough political cover for Whitmer to swing her support to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and grant the go-ahead for a casino near Muskegon.
The Little River group has presented plans and located a piece of property to build a new casino less than a mile from Interstate 96 and minutes from Muskegon to the north, and Grand Haven and Holland to the south.
The Fruitport casino was approved by the federal government in 2021, but Whitmer would need to remove objections from the state for it to move forward. The plan calls for a $180 million casino with 1,700 slot machines, 35 gaming tables, and a 220-room hotel. An early plan called for it to be named “Lakeshore Casino Resort.”
The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, one of three tribes of the Odawa recognized in Michigan, already operates the Little River Casino Resort on its own land in Manistee.
The nearest casino to the proposed Fruitport site is the Gun Lake Casino in Wayland, which is owned and operated by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians. Michigan currently has 26 casinos in operation.