GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After 28 years, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is still fighting for federal recognition, waiting patiently while the cogs of government turn slowly.
Tribal chairman Ron Yob admitted he has “probably been too patient.” He has led the fight for recognition ever since the tribe filed its intent to petition in 1994 and will continue to let the process play out.
“It’s kind of a back-and-forth thing. You just have to be patient. You can’t have any kind of anger, animosities or anything because that blurs your vision and you have to concentrate on what you’re trying to get done and just deal with them in a professional manner,” Yob told News 8.
Since the latest ruling by the Department of the Interior in February, the tribe has requested “technical assistance” to lay out what evidence they need to secure recognition.
“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 explained.
The tribe doesn’t have an exact date yet, but Yob expects a face-to-face meeting this summer in Washington to go over specifics. In its February ruling, the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs said the tribe has still failed to meet one of the seven mandatory criteria: demonstrating that “its members comprise a distinct community that has existed through time.”
“Instead of showing that (the Grand River Bands) represents a continuously existing community, the evidence shows that (the Grand River Bands) was formed recently by the merging of several different groups of descendants of the historic Grand River-area bands. These different groups were based in different parts of Michigan and appear to have acted independently, each with its own separate leadership, membership and activities,” the bureau stated.
The Grand River Bands comprises 19 different groups of Ottawa people who lived along the Grand River and other southwest Michigan waterways. The tribe is recognized by the state of Michigan and has agreements with the federal government dating back to 1795, but it is not considered a recognized tribe by the DOI. Without federal recognition, the tribe misses out on access to federal programs and sovereign treaty rights.
The lack of federal recognition has hit the Grand River Bands hard. The tribe currently has around 500 members. Those numbers have dropped off over the course of many years, with members leaving for other tribes to receive those federal benefits. But those low numbers won’t deter Yob and shouldn’t deter the BIA from acknowledging the tribe, Yob said.
“There’s a (federally recognized) tribe in California that has seven members. It’s your lineage and your history and who the documentation of who you are. A lot of people look at numbers, but that really has nothing to do with it,” Yob said.
Ultimately, Yob believes it is more important to achieve the tribe’s goal than to get it done quickly. He believes the BIA is being thorough and doesn’t mind the detailed process.
“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.”
When all is said and done, Yob is confident that the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians will be federally recognized. Sitting in Ah-Nab-Awen Park in downtown Grand Rapids, a place designed specifically to reimagine the burial mounds that once stood there, Yob pointed to a plaque about the 1821 Treaty of Chicago.
“We were the only Ottawa tribe that got a payment on that marker. When (the DOI) did the Land Claim Commission, we were the only tribe from Michigan that actually got a claim settled for us,” Yob said. “When our treaties were made, they came and recognized us then. When they took my mother to boarding school, she was Indian then.”
For Yob, the fight isn’t only for himself or even future generations. It’s about the tribe: the members who have passed, the members who will come and the members who call West Michigan home today.
“There are so many of our ancestors that are dying now and that’s the only thing they want. They just want to be recognized as who they are,” Yob said. “And what we’re doing now? I don’t want my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren to say, ‘Show us what my grandfather was doing when this was going about.’ I want to show them that we were working on it, and we are working on it.”
He concluded: “I don’t want people to say in 50, 100 years, ‘Whatever happened to the Grand River Bands of Ottawas?’ No, we are still here.”