Delayed Again: West Michigan Tribe Continues to Wait on Federal Recognition

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians has seen its application for recognition from the federal government pushed back once again, to Feb. 23.

The Grand Rapids-based tribe claims to have 500 members. It first applied for federal recognition from the United States government and the Department of the Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment in 1994. That application has been delayed multiple times, but never outright denied. There are currently 12 federally-recognized Indian Tribes in Michigan.

Once a tribe earns federal recognition, it becomes eligible certain for benefits and rights. Tribes enjoy these rights under treaties they’ve negotiated with the federal government over many decades. If Grand River Bands were to achieve that status, it would become a sovereign entity. That and the benefits sovereignty entails are the primary goal of its members.

“It gives us our status back, of who we are,” says tribal chairman Ron Yob. At the same time, he acknowledges that there would be economic benefits for the band if it gains federal status. Some of the tribal members could use the help.

Anything from COVID-relief to health care issues to repatriation of our ancestors to educational benefits. The list goes on and on.

Unless the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians can finally achieve recognition from the federal government, it cannot reclaim its sovereign heritage.

Delay Impacts Possible Casino Development in Southwest Michigan

The failure of the petition for federal recognition was cited by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as a reason to deny state approval of a casino project in Fruitport. Apparently, the governor does not wish to impinge on the possible status of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa.

That project was presented by the federally-recognized Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, based in Manistee. Their proposed location for the Fruitport casino is close to the territory claimed by the Grand River Bands. That could pose a problem if they were to gain sovereignty and want to open a casino of their own, a scenario Gov. Whitmer is seeking to avoid.

Recognition Results in Official Status Under Federal Law, Possible State Privileges

The website for the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) states that the “acknowledgment process is the Department’s administrative process by which petitioning groups that meet the criteria are given Federal ‘acknowledgment’ as Indian Tribes and by which they become eligible to receive services provided to members of Indian Tribes.”

Currently, according to the OFA, there are six Petitioners for Federal Acknowledgment. The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is one of three that have been waiting since 1994. The other petitioners all began the process in 2015. The other petitioning tribes are located in California, Connecticut, Florida, and New Mexico.

The OFA classifies the petition by the Grand River Bands as “in process” but does not call for public comment. One section of notes on the case from the OFA mentions that they:

…may have prepared one, two or three technical reports for a proposed finding. The Department may or may not have prepared a technical report for final determination. In some instances, the Department did not receive any comment or comment was so limited that the final determination response was contained within the Federal Register notice of the decision without a separate report being prepared.

Michigan Sharp examined letters sent from the OFA to the Grand Rivers Band. In 2020 when the federal government chose to suspend its consideration of the petition, it suggested the tribe may want to “submit an updated membership list and member files.”

If the Grand Rapids-area tribe were to gain the OFA’s recognition, it would also be able to apply for acceptance into agreements with the state of Michigan.

According to the State of Michigan, federally-recognized tribes in the state “are sovereign governments that exercise direct jurisdiction over their members and territory…”

Michigan has numerous agreements that govern the state’s relationship with its tribes. Those impact such issues as treaty fishing rights, taxation, water quality issues, economic development, and casino gaming. Many tribal nations in the Wolverine State own and or operate casinos and sportsbooks in Michigan. Those that do are eligible for online casino licenses as well. So, in time, recognition for the Grand River Bands could mean a 16th online gaming license in the state.

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is a writer and contributor for Michigan Sharp. He is an accomplished author, who has written three books about sports. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He isn't far from the Michigan action, residing near Lake Michigan, where he lives with his daughters.