Tribal chairperson Aaron Payment was once a high school dropout. Now, the White House has turned to his tribe as an example for how to foster educational opportunities within Indigenous communities.
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich.—Aaron Payment is dressed to the nines, his gray hair, still black at some roots, parted to the right and trailing down his shoulders and onto his trim blue suit that encases a strewn-together necklace and slim red tie. His choice of outfit is notably top-tier for a video call, professional and personalized in a way that anyone would want when attending a White House event.
Payment, the chairperson for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, has just finished day one of the Tribal Nations Summit, a virtual gathering of knowledge-sharing, action, and ideation between the country’s diverse Indigenous leaders.
Not only did Payment attend the conference, but he spoke as a panelist about Native education. Behind him still hangs the banner, “Every Child Matters,” when he joins the video call for this conversation.
But for someone carrying the flag of Indigenous education, Payment doesn’t have the background that immediately comes to mind. Not framed alongside his five degrees is a prominent omission—a high school diploma.
“I believe with the right opportunity, anybody can accomplish anything,” Payment said.
Life in Mar-Shunk
Payment grew up without running water or a working sewer system. He bathed once a week, with a weekly supply of water that his family would boil. Indoors, they didn’t have a bathroom. Outside, they had an outhouse.
“While all the White kids would be lined up to get free and reduced lunch, all the Indian kids would be lined up to go to the bathroom,” Payment said.
When it was time for an abbreviated, utilitarian shower, they would take that water and place it in the mop bucket, walk outside, and rinse off. Besides that, his main source of sanitation was frequent swims in the St. Marys River.
Back then, Payment said that was just life. But it is something that gave him reason for pause.
“It was problematic, because both being of a different race, we were teased, and it also wasn’t very sanitary,” Payment said. “I’m sure we didn’t smell very good.”
In the background, a lawsuit from his tribe marched on, brought forth by tribal leaders against the city of Sault Ste. Marie. The civil lawsuit alleged that the city had failed to provide the Native neighborhood where Payment grew up with adequate services, like clean water and sanitation.
Around this time, the tribe was also working to pursue federal recognition, which would allow it a degree of sovereignty and provide protection of the land. Decades before, Payment’s great-aunt and great-uncle led a charge for this effort, but the move tapered out at the time. In a revival of the efforts, Payment’s grandmother carried on that call, alongside many others, helping to conduct the tribal survey which was necessary to gain federal protection.
Witnessing this all as a young man growing up in the impoverished Mar-Shunk area, disconnected from many of his peers in high school, Payment felt a push. Knowing what he didn’t have, Payment said, drove him to want to help his people and close the inequities that Native people face. After dropping out of high school, he gained his GED.
“I feel, though we were very, very poor, fortunate to have grown up in such an era of empowerment where we were recognized,” Payment said.
His college life began at Lake Superior State University, where he was admitted on probation. His GED scores were good enough to get in, but from there, he had to begin part-time with a short lease. He made it to full-time status, winning honors for academic achievement, and eventually transferred to Northern Michigan University to complete his academic record.
As soon as he enrolled in a statistics program, however, Payment knew there was no looking back. That built his “skills base,” he said, and furthered his love for education.
In 1992, Payment was selected to be part of the Michigan Political Leadership program. For 28 years since, he’s helped train their annual fellows class.
Then in 2004, Payment won his election as tribal chairperson. Though he failed to win reelection in 2008, he used the off-year to further pursue education. He’s since won again in 2012, 2016, and 2020.
Doing Whatever It Takes for Good Government
“I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sure that other people have opportunities,” Payment said
As a student, educator, and politician, Payment is a strong believer in good governance, which is something his family and mentors taught him about when he was growing up. But good governance, he believes, has been tougher to come by in recent years.
“We’re in a really strange era,” Payment said. “As a society, we thought we were farther along with race relations, and I think we really didn’t understand the undercurrent of an anti-government sort of ethic out there.”
Locally, however, Payment has seen the process of symbiotic, communicative governance work. After feuds between the tribe and the city in the 1970s illustrated an acrimonious relationship that lasted decades, Payment has found that olive-branch extensions have repaired damage and benefited both communities.
For example, about a decade ago, the tribe was in need of a new water provider. In a regular meeting between city officials and tribal leadership, the issue came up, and the two parties decided to map out a route for water to be delivered from the city to the reservation, some three miles away.
“We opened a dialogue, we created a monthly meeting, we created a relationship with them where we were able to communicate,” Payment said.
Though water supply isn’t an eye-popping issue on cable news networks, Payment said it represents the important everyday work of good government. The move expanded the base for the city’s water supply, allowing it to pay off debt more quickly and invest in capital upgrades to equipment. And the tribe saved money and received water security as well.
The move signifies how far the relationship has come between the city and the tribe. From when Payment grew up without running water, the tribe and city now meet regularly to discuss how they can collaborate on projects, as the tribe’s casino brings tourists and economic boost to the region, and the city provides services.
“We found that we are better when we collaborate,” Payment said.