The dispute over a potential Muskegon County, Michigan casino might finally see a resolution. Although much remains up in the air for now, that air is becoming clearer with a recent decision by the US Dept. of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) regarding the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians.
The BIA found that the Grand River Bands’ application was insufficient to warrant federal recognition. While the Grand River Bands vow to continue seeking that benefit, that decision tilts the odds in favor of another tribe interested in a Michigan casino in the same area.
Grand River Bands get disappointing news
On Feb. 23, the BIA rendered its decision that the Grand River Bands failed to satisfy all seven tenets of qualification for federal recognition. The application demonstrated adequate facts to substantiate all but one of the criteria.
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.
Section 83.1 defines Community 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.
In plainer language, the Grand River Bands failed to prove they are distinctive enough from other Indigenous Peoples Groups to warrant separate recognition. In response, the Grand River Bands promised to take advantage of an option to appeal the decision.
“While we disagree with the US 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.
This news was disappointing for the Grand River Bands. However, another tribal authority with interests in the same area likely saw it as a welcome update.
Little River Band tribe also hopes for a Michigan casino on the same land
The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has had an agreement with Fruitport Township as the site of its second Michigan casino for years. However, the claims of the Grand River Bands to the same land have delayed the execution of that agreement.
Last June, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declined to renegotiate the gaming compact with the Little River Band because of the land dispute. With the potential federal recognition of the Grand River Bands pending at that time, Whitmer did not want to authorize a Little River Band casino on the plot.
Technically, that obstacle no longer exists. However, it’s unlikely that Whitmer and the Little River Band will move forward while the Grand River Bands still have appeal options. Thus, for the time being, a Muskegon County casino is no nearer to becoming reality.
For certain, however, the Grand River Bands’ options are running thin. Their best hope might not lie with the BIA any longer.
Congress might be the last resort but best option
At this point, the best hope for federal recognition for the Grand River Bands might be an act of the United States Congress. Former US Sen. Carl Levin introduced a similar act that would have granted that recognition in 2007. However, the proposal did not make it out of the Senate’s Indian Affairs committee.
There’s no guarantee that a similar measure would fare any better now. Such acts are not rare in Congress, however. The last Congress considered 16 such bills or resolutions during its time. That might be more feasible than changing the minds of BIA staff at this juncture.
If the appeal fails and no aid comes from Congress, the Little River Band might press Whitmer for a new compact. Until then, however, a resolution to the Muskegon County casino situation seems more certain even if not likely to come anytime soon.