A native sovereign nation recognized by the state of Michigan through agreements with the federal government dating back to 1795, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians 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.
Despite a 1,000-year history, recognition by the 1838 Treaty of Washington and the 1855 Treaty of Detroit, state recognition and three decades of petitioning, the Grand River Bands remain officially unrecognized by the federal government. On March 3, 2022, Representative David LaGrand introduced a resolution in the Michigan House of Representatives to encourage the U.S. Department of the Interior to approve the Grand River Bands’ petition
, which has been on the “active consideration list” since 2013. Federal recognition would make the tribe eligible for a wide range of benefits including educational opportunities, housing assistance and rights to ancestral remains.
“A lot of these things, they're guaranteed to the other tribes,” says Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands. “When we start exercising some of those rights, it's going to be starting from ground level. We have a lot of tribal members that are working around the state with other counties getting experience.”
During COVID-19, lack of recognition prevented tribal members from accessing health care at Indian Health Service in Grand Rapids. Because of the history of oppression, land theft, treaty violations, genocide and boarding schools, Michigan’s tribal residents feel more comfortable receiving care in their own clinics and health care settings.
“Here we are, in our own city that we inhabited thousands of years ago, and we can't even get service in our own city,” says Yob. “We really, really suffered from the coronavirus. The other tribes have gotten millions of dollars for COVID relief to work with their people. The Little Traverse Bay Bands [of Odawa Indians]
, they are helping us here and there. Otherwise, we wouldn't have gotten anything. We have to be part of a federally recognized tribe.”
Introduction of the resolution came after multiple lawmakers wrote letters to the U.S. Department of the Interior urging swift action on the tribe’s petition for federal recognition.
“One of the biggest things we lost was the Michigan Indian tuition waiver, which was given to Native people in the 1930s. I was the very first person at Grand Valley State University to get that tuition waiver. In the late 1970s, they quit doing it [for Grand River Band students],” Yob says. “Now, there are quite a few kids that go to Grand Valley that use that tuition waiver from around the US. But, if you're Grand River, in your home territory where you have a history, you can't even use it.”
In order to access tribal benefits, some Grand River Band members make the emotionally gripping decision to leave the tribe to join a different one with federal recognition.
“It's not just a matter of signing up with someone else. It means that you leave your own people. You’re not a part of your family anymore,” Yob says. “It's a very hard decision — a lot of the older ones just won't do it.”
Another challenge, without federal recognition, a tribe cannot reclaim ancestral remains. While current federal laws mandate remains housed in museums and educational institutions be returned to Native people, the Grand River Band is prevented from retrieving theirs.
“It's not the museums’ or the universities’ fault. They're kind of stuck in this quandary, as well,” Yob says. “A lot of the things that we're working on right now will never happen in my generation — but the seeds are being planted. You always want to leave this earth in a better place. We’re trying to reverse something that happened to us so the next generation doesn't have to go through this.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Logo courtesy Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians
Photo Rapid Growth Media files