Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 29, 2013

Editorial: Band's claim should get day in court

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — When the United States signed treaties in the 1800s with Indians in the Grand Traverse area, the government made a deal — cede us vast amounts of land to be sold to settlers, and we will, in return, reserve thousands of acres to be used as tribal homelands, for the exclusive use by the tribes.

But according to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, those promises were broken, and much of what was supposed to be tribal homeland was sold to settlers and lumber firms. The band has now announced its intent to sue the government for compensation.

“Despite those treaty protections, many ‘reservation’ lands were sold to non-Indians in violation of the treaty obligations,” the tribe said in a document that seeks to answer questions about its planned claim.

Such a suit could cost federal taxpayers tens of millions of dollars — some have estimated it at $300 million (including interest) — to pay the tribe for roughly 87,000 acres in Leelanau and Antrim counties sold to non tribal members.

Tribal attorney John Petoskey said the tribe doesn’t want to reclaim land from current owners, so property owners can rest easy. But tribal officials strongly believe members deserve to be made whole for what Petoskey described as illegal land transactions that violated an 1855 treaty.

“It was sold illegally by (federal) Indian agents to non-Indians,” Petoskey said.

If the Band’s claims can be verified — and no one seriously challenged their version of events as the tribe went through federal recognition efforts decades ago — the band was wronged. Instead of reserving those thousands of acres for tribal members, they were sold off to white settlers and lumber companies.

Over a 40-year period, the tribe said it lost virtually all of the 87,000 acres in question. The tribe said its money damage claim is based on the Fifth Amendment protection against the taking of private property without compensation.

Now, U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, whose 1st Congressional district includes the entire Upper Peninsula and most of northern Michigan, including Antrim County, has introduced legislation on behalf of the tribe that would clear the way for it to file its suit.

While that hardly means the legislation will survive in Washington or that the tribe will win in court, Benishek deserves credit for doing the right thing.

There’s little doubt that many of Benishek’s constituents — and probably many of his colleagues in the U.S. House — will think that even the slim possibility that the band will prevail makes the whole idea crazy.

That likely goes double for Benishek’s many tea party supporters, who oppose big government in general.

Benishek introduced H.R. 3068, which says the Secretary of the Treasury “shall pay, out of money not otherwise appropriated, to members of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan” an unspecified amount. House Resolution 335, also introduced by Benishek, would refer H.R. 3068 to the United States Court of Federal Claims “for a determination as to whether the tribe and its members have Indian trust-related legal or equitable claims.”

Petoskey, the tribal attorney, argued that protection of private property rights is “a strong Republican value” and that the land was taken from the tribe.

That may be. But doling out $300 million at a time of a trillion-dollar federal deficit would give anyone pause, particularly House members eyeing the 2014 elections. Doing the right thing is too rarely seen as a reason to re-elect anyone to Congress, and there’s little reason to believe that will be the case this time around.

The history of broken treaties between the U.S. government and American Indians is legend. And they were often — as appears to be the case here — broken with impunity and zero regard for the law, or with any sense of morality and ethics.

The Benishek legislation may be uncomfortable and may make a lot of people nervous for the precedent it could set in Michigan and around the country.

But ethically and morally, it’s the right thing to do, and it deserves support from the rest of Michigan’s House Delegation and U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow — if it ever gets that far.