GRAND RAPIDS — The U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed denying a decades-long effort by the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians to obtain federal recognition, a status that would bring numerous benefits to the tribe and its members.
In a long-awaited decision, the Office of Federal Acknowledgement within the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a proposed finding today that the tribe did not meet one of seven criteria for a “government-to-government relationship with the United States.”
The proposed finding will be published in the Federal Register on Feb. 27, giving the Grand River Bands 180 days to submit materials or additional information that may overturn the agency’s finding.
“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,” Grand River Bands Chairman Ron Yob said in a statement.
Yob noted that the tribe has agreements with the federal government dating back to 1795, and that the Grand River Bands is 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,” Yob added.
A favorable ruling by the Office of Federal Acknowledgement would have allowed the tribe to maintain government-to-government relationships with the federal government, access federal programs and resources such as the Indian Health Service, and exercise its sovereign treaty rights for activities such as fishing.
The Grand River Bands first petitioned the federal government for recognition in 1994. The DOI started its initial review in 2005, and the Grand River Bands was placed under “active consideration” in 2013. The DOI then approved a series of extensions from March 2016 to April 2020 before pausing the consideration during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government resumed its consideration in April of 2022.
According to a notice filed today, the Grand River Bands appears to have lacked documentation showing that a “predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.”
A community is defined under federal law as “any group of people which can demonstrate that consistent interactions and significant social relationships exist within its membership and that its members are differentiated from and identified as distinct from nonmembers. Community must be understood in the context of the history, geography, culture and social organization of the group.”
The notice cites the Grand River Bands’ historic descent from Ottawa bands that lived in areas surrounding the Grand River.
“While the Petitioner’s members appear to descend from these historic Grand River-area bands … the Petitioner has not demonstrated that its members comprise a distinct community that has existed as a community through time,” according to the federal notice. It adds that the Grand River Bands “came together beginning in 1995 from several independent groups.”
Historically, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians included 19 bands of Ottawa people who lived along the Grand River and other waterways in present-day Southwest Michigan, spanning the cities of Grand Rapids and Muskegon. Ancestors of the current members were signatories of numerous agreements with the federal government, starting in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville.
The majority of its current enrolled members live in and around Kent, Muskegon and Oceana counties.
Beyond the bureaucratic process through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Grand River Bands also previously sought a legislative path to federal recognition. In 2005 and again 2007, the tribe worked with the late U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and current Sen. Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats, to sponsor federal legislation that would have given the tribe an “expedited review” of its petition and granted it federally recognized status if the BIA failed to act within a given timeframe.
Levin’s 2007 bill made it as far as a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs before it died.