GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After nearly 30 years of back-and-forth with the Department of the Interior, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians hopes a different tactic will help them achieve federal recognition.
On Tuesday, U.S. Reps. Hillary Scholten and John Moolenaar among other Michigan legislators, introduced the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians Restoration Act of 2023. If passed, the bill would designate the tribe as federally recognized, something the tribe has been working toward since first filing an application in 1994.
Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands, thanked the lawmakers for their help to get to this point and cited his frustration of working with the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“This bill will help us finally achieve our long-stated goal of federal recognition after three decades of administrative delays by the broken federal acknowledgment process,” Yob said in a statement. “We will pursue every possible avenue to achieve our recognition and provide long-awaited justice to our members. We are honored that we are joined in this important fight by a bipartisan majority of the Michigan congressional delegation, community organizations, other tribes and West Michigan residents who have been unwavering in their support.”
The Grand River Bands is a sovereign nation that has certified agreements with the federal government dating back to 1795. It is comprised of 19 bands of Ottawa people who lived along the Grand River and other waterways throughout southwest Michigan. Today, most of the tribe’s membership lives in Kent, Muskegon and Oceana counties.
The tribe is recognized by the state of Michigan, but not by the Department of the Interior. And without federal recognition, the tribe does not receive federal benefits, including access to federal programs, funding, resources and the ability to exercise sovereign treaty rights. As a result, the tribe’s membership has dwindled over the years, now down to approximately 500 members.
Scholten and Moolenaar each included statements in the bill’s introduction that said the tribe deserves to be recognized.
“The Grand River Bands are an essential part of our state’s history, culture and community and their federal tribe recognition is long overdue,” Scholten, D-Grand Rapids, stated.
“The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians has made Michigan a better place and is worthy of full recognition from the federal government. This legislation will cut through the red tape the tribe has experienced in dealing with the Department of Interior for 23 years. It is long overdue, and I am proud to join the tribe in supporting its efforts for federal recognition,” Moolenaar, R-Caledonia, stated.
Yob told WOOD TV8 in 2022 that the fight for recognition isn’t about preserving the tribe’s history, but receiving what they are owed.
“We’re trying to make it so our next generation and however many after that will be acknowledged and receive benefits that were ensured to them,” Yob said. “Our ancestors are recognized, but the descendants aren’t. Our children cannot participate under the Indian Child Welfare laws. I don’t care if it’s religious freedom or COVID relief. All the (federally recognized) tribes across the nation got millions of dollars in relief, and our tribe didn’t get a penny. I mean, it can go on and on.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office for Federal Acknowledgement uses a strict seven-step criteria to determine whether a tribe should receive federal recognition and the benefits that go along with the title. In February, the DOI notified Yob that the tribe’s application fell short of one of those criteria: “That its members comprise a distinct community that has existed as a community through time.”
Following that decision, Yob requested a technical assistance meeting with the DOI to detail exactly what evidence is missing.
“We don’t want to concentrate on the 1970s when they wanted the 1930s, or we don’t want to do the 1930s if they wanted the 1980s,” Yob said.
He told News 8 in May that he “probably has been too patient” with the DOI throughout the process, but remained confident that the tribe would ultimately succeed.
“It’s a tedious process, but we don’t mind the scrutiny because we don’t feel that there is nothing that we can’t provide,” Yob explained. “If they didn’t scrutinize everything, there would be people all over the country that would tie up the thing and make the process even longer for people.”