GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It has been a tumultuous few centuries for the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians. Between lost land and lost loved ones, the tribe now is fighting for federal recognition. It’s a battle that has now stretched 28 years and has no clear end in sight.
The Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians dates back to the 1795 when it took part in the Treaty of Greenville, the first of several in the 18th and 19th centuries that established and amended tribal boundaries and laws.
Tribal Chairman Ron Yob says the tribe itself is a group of 19 different bands from across West Michigan.
“The 19 different bands existed along the (Grand River), somewhere between here and almost to Jackson. Basically, wherever there was a river mouth, like the Platte or the Thornapple or the Maple, Red Cedar, there would be a village. And when we were treatied, we were treatied together as the Grand River Bands,” Yob told News 8.
There are 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan. But for some reason, the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians isn’t one of them. Yob says it’s frustrating given how little differences there are between the tribes.
“Well, Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi is something the government (uses) because we merged over each other. We’re pretty much connected. The Michigan Indians, they talk the same language, we’re basically related to each other. It’s just when they treatied us they gave us those names,” Yob said.
Today, the Grand River Band has about 500 members. Numbers have slowly dropped off as some members have left for different tribes — ones that are federally recognized and therefore receive federal benefits, including access to federal programs, funding and resources and the ability to exercise sovereign treaty rights.
Yob says it isn’t simply about preserving the tribe’s history — saying “our traditions are going to stay alive whether we’re recognized or not” — it’s about receiving what they believe they is 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.”
CRITERIA FOR QUALIFICATION
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.
- The tribe must be identified as an American Indian entity on a consistent basis dating back to at least 1900, using reliable and external sources for citation.
- The tribe must demonstrate that it acted as a community from 1900 to the present.
- The tribe must have maintained some form of organization and authority over its community since 1900.
- The tribe must detail its membership criteria and governing procedures.
- The tribe must prove its historical descendancy.
- The tribe must be comprised mostly of people who are not affiliated with another federally recognized tribe.
- The tribe or its members cannot be the subject of congressional legislation that expressly forbids a federal relationship.
THE LONG ROAD TO RECOGNITION
For Yob and the Grand River Band, the push for recognition started decades ago. In the early 1990s, Yob was a teacher for Grand Rapids Public Schools who worked specifically with high-risk Indigenous students. Yob made their family and tribal history and key part of class.
“I would make them research their tribes — when they came here, who their tribe was, where it was located. Any kind of research they could do,” Yob said. “And when we got into treaty rates and educational benefits and health care, things like that, all the other kids had those rights. But our Grand River kids didn’t.”
It was his students that first motivated Yob to take action.
“My students kind of challenged me: ‘Why don’t we have them? And if we don’t have them, quit talking about them and do something about it,’” Yob said.
That’s when Yob got more involved with the Grand River Band, was elected chief and decided to tackle the project head-on.
There are three ways to receive federal recognition: work through the process with the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, seek recognition through federal court or receive recognition through Congressional action.
While Yob has tried to make moves in Congress, including legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, all efforts have ultimately fallen short, shifting his attention to the OFA.
Yob and the Grand River Band first formally petitioned for recognition in 1994. In 2005 — 11 years later — the OFA sent a letter informing the band that the office has completed its initial review, including 52 compact disks worth of materials.
The OFA pushed back on several of the Grand River Band’s claims and was critical of some of the information organizers submitted as evidence, including “illegible” newspaper articles and “unclear” citations.
Yob said the Grand River Band has clarified those issues and is awaiting a decision — one that has been delayed more than 20 times. According to Yob, the OFA says there is nothing for the tribe to do “on (their) end.”
The latest delay came last month, with the OFA instituting a 120-day extension for the decision that was set to be decided by Oct. 12.
“If there were negative issues, we would work to correct them. But they just kind of don’t say no, but they don’t say yes, either. The just keep extending it. We are kind of caught in limbo,” he said. “The case is presented. We have to allow it to play out. We have to continue to be patient. I might be too patient of a person, but I don’t know how to push them.”
However long it takes, Yob says he is committed to the cause.
“We’re not going anywhere. We have been here thousands of years. We are the tribe of record. We are treatied here. Our documentation shows us to be from this Grand River valley. We’re the only tribe here,” Yob said. “And for the sake of our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and future descendants, we have to push this through for them.”
WOOD TV8 has reached out to the DOI for comment on the Grand River Band’s case. The department has yet to respond.
— This is Part 1 of a Sunday Series dedicated to Native American Heritage Month.