After many years of pursuing federal recognition, the Department of Interior formally rejected the request by the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians on Thursday.
The decision comes nearly 30 years after the tribe first expressed intent to the DOI to be federally recognized as a tribe. The DOI cited that the tribe failed to satisfy one of the seven mandatory criteria for acknowledgement.
Thursday’s decision also advances the pursuit of a new retail casino in the Fruitport Township area by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
DOI denies Grand River Bands federal recognition request
In a letter to the Grand River Bands, the DOI ruled that the tribe doesn’t meet the meaning of an Indian tribe under federal law. =
Along with the letter, the DOI issued their proposed findings on the matter.
“The evidence submitted by Petitioner #146 (Grand River Bands), and evidence Department staff obtained through its verification and evaluation research, is insufficient to demonstrate that Petitioner #146 meets criterion § 83.7(b), one of the seven mandatory criteria of the regulations for a determination that the petitioning group is an Indian tribe,” the DOI said in its findings. ‘Criterion § 83.7(b) requires that ‘[a] predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.’ In accordance with the regulations, the failure to meet all seven criteria requires a determination that the petitioning group is not an Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law. Therefore, the Department proposes to decline to acknowledge Petitioner #146 as an Indian tribe.”
The DOI had requested multiple extensions on the matter, including nine since 2017. The latest extension came just two weeks ago.
The Grand River Bands has been seeking federal recognition since 1994. Receiving federal recognition would provide the tribe with health care, housing and education assistance programs not currently provided to their approximately 500 members.
Potential new Michigan casino impacted by decision on Grand River Bands
While this DOI decision has been a long wait for the Grand River Bands, it’s also been an awaited decision for the Little River Band as well.
Little River had plans in place to build a retail casino in Fruitport Township in the summer of 2022. Those plans were ultimately rejected at the last minute by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in June.
Whitmer stated she was put in an “impossible position” as the reason behind her decision. Whitmer felt she couldn’t grant the project to Little River while the DOI contemplated its decision on the Grand River Bands.
The Grand River Bands claimed the property Little River proposed for its new casino was part of its ancestral homelands. Had they earned federal recognition, they would have had the right to build their own casino on those lands or in a neighboring area.
Whitmer had asked the DOI for an expedited decision on the federal recognition last summer. However, the DOI declined at the time.
What’s next for Grand River Bands & Little River Band?
Despite the DOI’s finding on Thursday, the Grand River Bands now has 180 days to challenged the proposed findings or present new evidence. The tribe has expressed it will do just that.
“While we disagree with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s initial findings on our petition, we are confident we can provide the additional information requested and ultimately achieve the long overdue federal recognition for our tribal members,” said Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands, in a press release. “The Grand River Bands has a long history in Michigan, with agreements with the federal government dating back to 1795, and we are a state recognized tribe. We have support from numerous lawmakers, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, other tribes, business groups, community organizations and West Michigan residents who have and continue to advocate alongside us, and we remain confident we will be granted federal recognition and be able to provide justice and critical resources for our members.”
Little River Band will likely want Gov. Whitmer to revisit her decision on the proposed Fruitport Township casino following Thursday’s DOI findings.
The DOI’s decision was the only thing keeping Whitmer from granting the new casino. Thursday has to be considered a victory for Little River.