Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 30, 2012

The Eagle Returns

Legal eagle writes legal history of GT Band


TRAVERSE CITY — Matthew L.M. Fletcher was 8 years old when the federal government finally recognized the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in 1980.

His mother, June Mamagona Fletcher, a descendant of Antrim County Ottawas, enrolled herself and him in the Band a short time later. His father, Richard, is white.

Fletcher's tribal member number is 197, meaning he was only the 197th member to be enrolled. The Band now has more than 4,000 members in its six-county service area in Michigan and elsewhere.

Today, Fletcher is 40, a Michigan State University law professor and author of an updated tribal history called "The Eagle Returns: The Legal History of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians," published last year by Michigan State University Press.

The title comes from a remark once made by Jonas Shawandase, a Grand Traverse Band elder from the 1930s-1950s: "When the Eagle returns we will again be a great nation."

Fletcher is part of the first generation of Grand Traverse Band members to grow up with treaty rights — reaffirmed in a landmark 1979 federal court ruling after a more than a decade of battles in state and federal courts.

Federal recognition allowed the band to establish its own government. It also made the Band eligible for federal education, health, housing and economic development grants and assistance.

During the 1970s, Peshabestown was "on its knees," Fletcher wrote. Many houses still had no electricity or running water.

When asked, Fletcher said he thinks many Indians in his generation have a responsibility to serve their tribes and work for a positive future.

"Our actions today will reflect what will happen in the future," he said. "A lot of Indians will say we have to look forward seven generations when we make decisions."

Fletcher also directs MSU's Indigenous Center for Indian Law and Policy, which offers experiential learning classes to prepare second- and third-year Native law students to work on behalf of tribes around the country.

Fletcher's book chronicles the story of northern Michigan Ottawa and Chippewa Indians through the 1800s until today. It details the history of how Michigan Ottawas and Chippewas lost a way of life dependent on hunting, fishing and gathering in vast stretches of wilderness that were destroyed within 70 years after the 1836 treaty was signed. It explains the loss of treaty-reserved lands through fraud, false and broken treaty promises, federal assimilation policies and other reasons.

It also unfolds the century-long struggle to have their treaty rights reaffirmed after the federal government wrongfully terminated them in 1855.

The book includes recent Band history — development of modern tribal law and justice systems and GT Band gambling operations.

The first tribal history, published in 1992, was "Mem-ka-weh: Dawning of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians" by Glen Arbor writer and journalist George Weeks.

Fletcher has known since his elementary school days that he wanted to be a writer. He attributes that to his mother, who entered him in enrichment programs for fourth- to sixth-graders in Grand Rapids that taught him how to research and write.

In the mid-1980s he realized he wanted to be a lawyer at a summer camp for native children. Elders occasionally came to speak with a consistent message, "Go to school." He remembers one elder's advice in particular.

"We need lawyers," the elder told the students. "We have had some of the greatest lawyers in the country, but none of our own people."

"I realized I could do that," Fletcher said. And he did.

He entered University of Michigan as a freshman in 1990 and left with his law degree in 1997.

He then worked a few years as a staff attorney and tribal judge for three Indian Tribes — the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California, the Suquamish Tribe in Washington State.

He spent 2001-2004 living in Suttons Bay and working with the Grand Traverse Band.

He began teaching law in 2004 at the University of North Dakota and went to MSU in 2006.

Fletcher spoke last weekend at the History Center of Traverse City's grand opening of its new multi-year "Legends" exhibit. The spring and fall rotating exhibit focuses on area residents from minority groups who broke important barriers in their times that still have impact today.

Peshabestown fisherman Art Duhamel (1924-1992) is among the first three Legends selected.

Duhamel was arrested several times during the 1970s for fishing with gill nets, but now is considered an important local Indian treaty rights leader. His decision in 1972 to test treaty fishing waters by gill netting eventually helped lead to the Band's federal recognition and reaffirmation of its treaty rights.

"In the Midwest, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, both Duhamel in the Lower Peninsula and Big Abe LeBlanc in the Upper Peninsula are eminent," Fletcher said.