PESHAWBESTOWN — Tribal officials fired six of their Natural Resources Department employees for shooting a rifle off their office’s deck, a move that’s angered some Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa members who said the punishment is too severe.
Tribal member Tanya Raphael said dozens of people packed a tribal council meeting on Wednesday, a crowd that spilled into a hallway and out-of-doors. Another dozen or so demonstrated in front of the Tribal Council chambers.
Raphael said the outcry is not just over the firings; she alleges a pattern of intimidation and harassment following the election of new Tribal Council members and chairman last summer.
“It’s about other firings, treatment of staff, treatment of tribal citizens,” Raphael said. “We are saying enough is enough.”
Raphael told the council that petitions are being prepared to recall the following council members in this order: Treasurer Jane Rohl, Alvin Pedwaydon, Secretary George Antoine, and Vice Chairman Robert Kewaygoshkum.
Tribal manager Sonya Zotigh said she can’t comment on personnel matters. The fired employees also declined comment because they’ve appealed their terminations. Pedwaydon and Kewaygoshkum also did not return calls for comment.
Last winter, the tribe’s chief game warden, Bill Bailey, decided to try out a .22 rifle as a quieter option to .357 magnums that he and other employees now carry, said attorney Craig Elhart, who represents the employees.
The six employees sighted the rifle, using targets set into a vacant West Grand Traverse Bay beach just outside the tribal resource department’s building in Peshawbestown, Elhart said.
Another employee saw them and filed a complaint. Their one-week paid suspension continued unpaid for nearly six weeks, but employees didn’t know when it would end, Elhart said.
Talk in tribal circles includes a story that the employees used water birds, specifically federally protected cormorants, as targets, but Elhart said it’s not true.
“That’s just a fish story,” he said.
One employee who lost his job is Desmond Berry, awarded the 2013 Environmental Professional of the Year by the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council. The six ousted employees worked more than 90 years combined for the department and were terminated about 10 days ago, Elhart said.
“To my knowledge the (band) has no policy that covers this, particularly if you are an NRD officer. They do it (shoot) everyday,” he said.
The state Department of Natural Resources has no jurisdiction over what happens on tribal or private land. It’s legal to sight in a firearm on state land without a hunting license as long as there is an identifiable target. A backstop is strongly recommended, said Sarah Lapshan, DNR spokeswoman.
Former tribal Chairman Derek Bailey praised the six for their lifelong commitment to protect the environment and treaty rights.
“They always put in their best effort,” he said.
Raphael alleged that tribal officials, some politically motivated, use the band’s employee handbook against them. Her daughter, for example, delivered a premature baby at 25 weeks and was unable to get her 12-week leave extended despite the policy’s exception for “extenuating circumstances.” Her daughter asked to extend the time with earned days off, but was refused.
“This isn’t a one-time, isolated incident. There have been several,” she said. “I’ve been to council after council meeting just addressing individual situations, but nothing’s being done.”