This West Michigan Tribe Is Recognized by the State but Not the Federal Government. Here’s Why That Matters.

By Isaac Constans

July 21, 2023

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians has been fighting for recognition for more than three decades.

GRAND RAPIDS—About 500 members of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians are stuck in a state of limbo as the tribe continues its 30-year battle for federal recognition—and the crucial benefits that come with it.

With members primarily located on the west side of the state, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is comprised of descendants of kin-based bands of Ottawa people who originally signed onto multiple land treaties between 1795 and 1855.

As far as the state of Michigan is concerned, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is a fully-fledged tribe—but state recognition has scant meaning without federal recognition, which opens up tribes and their members to significant federal funding, benefits, services, and protections.

In 1994, the federal government changed the process for tribes to be recognized. The process has primarily followed these guidelines since.

Ron Yob, chairperson of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, notified the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1994 that the tribe intended to apply for federal recognition. The process has been ongoing since, with the federal government having rebuffed applications thus far.

Below, we’ll answer the top questions about this process and where things stand.

What is the history of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians?

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians contains 19 distinct bands of Ottawa Indians that lived on the land of modern-day West Michigan, specifically in the Muskegon and Grand Rapids regions. Then, these tribes signed land treaties with the United States government that redefined the territory recognized to be Indigenous lands. (The United States government repeatedly violated these treaties during the country’s expansion.)

The Bureau of Indian Affairs notes that Ottawa people often organized in “bands,” which most commonly were large units of extended families that lived together in villages averaging 150 people.

In 1836, Ottawa chiefs signed onto the Treaty of Washington, agreeing to swap their tribal land in West Michigan for annuity payments and protected land further north. 

In 1855, newly arrived migrants from Europe and the Northeast again pressured the government to relocate tribes. The government and chiefs agreed to a new treaty and further cessions of land.

On both treaties, tribal representatives who identified themselves as Ottawas from villages along the Grand River signed the treaties, signifying government recognition of Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians as a sovereign people with a right to self-governance.

 Because of various resettlements, modern descendants of the bands recognized in the treaty are scattered geographically throughout the region. However, a majority are still located near the Grand Rapids area.

Today, members of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians gather for group meetings and cultural events.

What is the latest development in the process?

In February, the Bureau of Indian Affairs published a proposed finding rejecting the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians’ petition for federal recognition. The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is currently in a 180-day period in which it can challenge the proposed finding and present new evidence to supplement its petition for recognition.

Ron Yob, chairperson of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, says the tribe plans to appeal the decision. He is arranging a meeting with federal officials to determine what documents would resolve federal concerns about their status.

Why hasn’t the federal government recognized the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians?

Tribes must satisfy seven requirements laid out by the 1994 rule changes to receive federal recognition. Combined, those requirements spell out that a group must: 

a. Have historically been recognized as a tribal unit; 

b. Have constituted a community up until the present day; 

c. Maintain political influence;

d. Follow a governing document that includes membership criteria;

e. Enroll members who descended from a tribe or tribes with central, autonomous governance;

f. Not have members who are already associated with a recognized tribe—though there are exceptions to this rule; and

g. Not be subject to any laws prohibiting a relationship between itself and the government.

The biggest impediment to recognition is condition b: having constituted a community up until the present day. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote in its proposed finding that descendants of the original bands seemingly reconnected during their pursuit of federal recognition and that the group has sometimes gone years without a community gathering. 

The Bureau of Indian Affairs writes: “From one activity to another, the individuals purporting to act on behalf of the Grand River Bands changed significantly. Instead of reflecting the existence of a distinct community, these activities appear to have been performed by several different groups of descendants acting independently, in some cases, making different decisions on the same issues.”

Yob disagrees with that description and plans to submit further documentation to show that is not the case.

“I’m sure we have it because… we have boxes and boxes of documentation,” Yob said. “We search church archives, government records, personal archives, and we have a collection of things that always connects to us who we are.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs also reports that a hurdle to recognition could be in the membership rolls of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. Of 527 names that the tribe submitted, 27 belonged to deceased people, according to the proposed findings, and a significant proportion of members had affiliations with other federally recognized tribes. Though not disqualifying, members would need to confirm they belong to the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs stated that some roles lack addresses for members, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians risks running afoul of condition (f).

“The list does not specify to which tribe the ‘dually enrolled’ members belong. Department researchers identified 27 individuals as deceased using online obituaries and the Social Security Death Index database,” the bureau said in its recent decision.

It’s worth noting that of four groups recognized by the state of Michigan but not the federal government, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians claims to have the largest membership roll. 

There are also federally recognized tribes with significantly fewer members—the smallest is a California tribe with fewer than two dozen members.   

What’s next?

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians will meet with a Bureau of Indian Affairs representative to troubleshoot holes in their application and learn what documentation could help their case.

Yob has said he wants to work with the government to secure these benefits, but he understands the process takes time.

What’s at stake?

Federal recognition of tribes comes with many benefits for individuals and the tribe at large—housing and food assistance, educational grants, and religious and burial freedoms.

Yob said he was the first person in Michigan to gain access to a tuition waiver to Grand Valley State University through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now, he says, younger members of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians would not be eligible for those same benefits because of the lack of federal recognition. 

Without federal recognition, a generation of Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians could fall behind, Yob said.

“We can’t exercise our religious freedoms without being federally recognized,” Yob said. “I think it just goes on, and on and it’s mind boggling.”

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