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Grand Traverse Band seeks its day in court for theft of reservation lands


Linda Woods poses for a portrait outside her home in Traverse City on Friday. Woods is a tribal elder of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

PESHAWBESTOWN — Linda Woods recalls her life growing up in her ancestral lands in Peshawbestown.

Woods, a tribal elder with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, didn’t notice she was living in poverty on the reservation, despite the lack of electricity and running water in her home, a one-room shack.

When Woods reached school age she went to a non-Native friend’s home just a couple of miles away. The home had indoor plumbing and a bathtub — an unheard-of luxury, she said.

It was then that she saw the difference in living conditions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Leelanau County.

Woods said she didn’t know she was poor, just that her people didn’t have money.

“Our people were rich in what little culture we had left,” said Woods, a U.S. Air Force veteran. “Outside, people see us as poor. Now we’re ignored. Now we’re invisible ... but we know who we are.”

The GTB is in the process of filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government for compensation of reservation land that was wrongfully taken from the tribe. The lawsuit is based on the Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Due process of law

It was nearly two decades ago when the GTB began researching events that led to the loss of thousands of acres of land given to the Ottawa and Chippewa Nations in the Treaty of Detroit, also known as the Treaty of 1855.

“We were promised a permanent home on our own land, and that process never took place,” said David M. Arroyo, tribal chairman. “When you look across the country at the time, that was common.”

The Nations were given 87,000 acres in Leelanau and Antrim counties. By 1900, having been decimated by land speculators, white settlers and acts of Congress, that land mass had dwindled to just 700 acres.

The possibility of being compensated for the theft begins with a Congressional Reference Bill that would give the GTB the go-ahead to sue the United States government in the U.S. Court of Claims.

Tribal citizens have made it clear that they are not trying to take the land back and do not wish to cloud the titles of current landowners. Compensation they seek would be based on the land’s worth when it was taken plus interest.

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman has been asked to introduce the bill, which would need to be passed by just one chamber of Congress — the House of Representatives or the Senate. Bergman, in turn, asked the GTB to first seek support from local municipalities in which the taken land is located.

They include Bingham, Centerville, Leelanau, Leland and Suttons Bay townships, and Antrim and Leelanau Counties.

Richard Bahle, Suttons Bay Township supervisor, owns land that was years ago taken from the reservation. It is something he feels conflicted about.

“I’ve never gone over to the courthouse to see how my great-grandfather acquired title,” Bahle said, adding that he’s not afraid of the answer. “I’m aware of the fact that there are questions about the transfers and I think it should be settled.”

Suttons Bay Township gave its support to the GTB in 2018 and sent a letter to Bergman saying so.

“I strongly feel they should have a hearing,” Bahle said. “We are not judging the merits, we just think that their argument should be made. It’s more than ripe.”

The Leelanau County Board this week passed a resolution supporting the tribe’s efforts and will send Bergman a letter. Centerville Township gave its support in 2018.

“I am totally behind their right and their approach to getting compensation,” said Jim Schwantes, Centerville Township supervisor. “It makes a whole lot of sense. If some white corporation had been ripped off it wouldn’t be so controversial.

“I have no problem with reviewing this issue in the courts and then letting the system decide if they were justly compensated or not.”

If the reference bill is passed, the Court of Claims will decide the fate of the lawsuit. If it is determined that the GTB has a claim and is entitled to be paid for the land, an act of Congress will be needed to recognize the claim.

Arroyo said he’s not sure if people can fully understand how deep the theft has cut, how it has affected generations of tribal members.

“What I like most about this project, and I’m not trying to take away from the seriousness or the gravity, but it really gives people a breadth of knowledge,” Arroyo said. “It really sheds light on history that isn’t well known, and it really speaks to what happened throughout this country. It’s just an example of how common it was not to honor treaties.”

Broken treaties

In the Treaty of Washington, also known as the Treaty of 1836, the Indians of the Michigan Territory ceded nearly 14 million acres to the United States, paving the way for Michigan to assume statehood the following year.

In return, the GTB was promised a small reservation. In a report written by the Ann Arbor-based law firm of Kanji & Katzen, PLLC, the band maintains it was a promise that was never kept.

Instead, over the next 20 years, Indigenous people were rounded up and forced west to Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota and elsewhere.

The band lobbied to stay in Michigan, which resulted in the Treaty of 1855 which established an 87,000-acre reservation. Each eligible band member was given five years to make land selections of up to 80 acres that would be held in trust for 10 years, after which patents would be issued to tribal members for the allotments.

After the initial five-year allotment period, band members had another five years when they could buy land within the reservation. When the entire allotment period had ended the lands would be opened for sale to the public.

Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny wrote in his annual report that under the treaty, “ ... those Indians who have had reservations set apart ... are not to be interfered with in the peaceable possession and undisturbed enjoyment of their land; that no trespasses will be permitted upon their territory or their rights; that the assurances and guarantees of their treaty grants are as sacred and binding as the covenants in the settler’s patent ...”

But a decade of delay caused by the United States’ inability to create a list of band members entitled to allotments ended in many never receiving land, the GTB report states.

There also were intense efforts by land speculators, lumber companies and white settlers — aided by political allies — to lay claim to the land.

In 1864, when reservation land was not yet open to the public, federal officials from the Traverse City Land Office recruited two Indian “shills” who would buy reservation land using money provided by land speculators or embezzled from Land Office funds, the report states.

The two men then gave the certificates of purchase of the land to their non-Indian buyers.

In 1865 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the Land Office to do an investigation into whether the transactions were illegal.

The issuing of patents for all lands was suspended during the investigation, but at the urging of Congressmen who were in on the scam, non-Indians were still given patents, with about 15,000 acres of the best reservation lands ending up in non-Indian hands.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s white settlers also began staking claim to reservation lands, although under the Treaty of 1855 they had no right to do so.

Under intense political pressure, those settlers were also issued patents for the land they took and in 1871 Indian Agent John Knox reported that opening the 1855 reservations to the public was the wish of Michigan’s citizens.

Knox wrote that “It is almost the universal opinion ... that the sooner the reservations are disposed of ... the better it will be for the Indians, the Counties in which their lands are located, and the State at large,” according to the report.

Honoring strength

Ruth and John Bussey were given a 99-year lease from Leelanau County in the late 1960s for Ruth’s family plot with the caveat that they would make improvements to the lot, Ruth Bussey said. Despite building a road and campsite on it to enjoy the land and all it had to provide, the county decided that wasn’t enough, she said.

John Bussey asked for a copy of their survey and after the county was unable to provide the document it was settled that they could keep the land.

Ruth, a tribal elder, was born three lots down from her ancestors’ parcel and grew up on her family’s land in Peshawbestown, where her parents and grandparents also lived.

She said her family was subjected to land theft before, when her ancestors lost their lands because of illegal taxation. Her grandmother, Helen Blackman, was to be forced off her land and county sheriffs were moving the tribal community from Peshawbestown to South Fox Island, she said. Blackman refused and was able to keep her land.

Ruth recalls her mother, Josephine Bailey, telling her that “if anything ever happens to me, make sure you hold onto these lots, because it’s all we have left.”

Congress passed the Act of 1872 that did away with all the provisions of the Treaty of 1855, placing all remaining tribal lands on the market, retroactively making legal all the patents received by those settlers who had unlawfully entered the reservation, as well as for lands illegally obtained by the Indian shills.

Tribal members were treated differently. In order to keep their lawfully-given land allotment some had been living on for several years, they were required by law to pay $12, live on the land for another five years and travel to the Land Office — about 100 miles round trip — with two witnesses in order to be given the patent that was promised to them under the treaty.

Arroyo has heard the old stories from family members. If a person left their home to visit family or was in the hospital or went into the bush for a couple of days to hunt or fish the marshals would come and deem them unfit to be a homesteader, taking away their home and their land.

“I’m proud to say that we’re survivors, but at the same time, it frustrates me because it didn’t have to be that way,” he said.

Ruth believes that the land theft took a lot away from her family and the community, but she also believes it made them that much stronger. They kept their traditions, and fought for what was rightfully theirs. She honors her ancestors’ struggles and fights to have the courage to be strong for her own family and community.

She has passed that steeliness down to her children and grandchildren, ensuring that her fight has been for them. They grew up hearing the stories of their family’s struggles and hold onto what little is left of their beautiful land.

John Bussey said the fight isn’t with individual land or homeowners, or even with the state of Michigan, but with the federal government.

“It is so important that we honor the ancestors’ struggles and what they had to endure during the time their land, culture, and promises were taken,” John said.

Finding hope

GTB tribal elder Tom John grew up in Kewadin, where he and others faced regular mistreatment.

“We’re still fighting it today,” said John, a pastor. “Eighty seven thousand acres of land was taken away from us, and in every reservation. I’ve been to a lot of reservations here in this country and have experienced the same thing.”

The GTB was never compensated for the land and because of the fast advancement of the western expansion that blew up in the late 19th century, tribal land was reduced to “checkerboard reservations,” John said, something the Dawes Act was designed to do.

“The government found a lot of those lands that they thought were a wasteland had the natural resources and other things that were valuable,” John said, citing the theft of Black Hills from the Lakota Sioux when gold was found.

Passed in 1887, the The Dawes Act gave the federal government authorization to break up tribal lands by partitioning them into individual plots. Indigenous people were allowed to accept plots and were allowed to become U.S. citizens, but were required to pay taxes on the land.

“We as Indian people didn’t understand what taxes were,” John said. “We didn’t know about land ownership because the land belonged to everybody.”

Unpaid taxes led to tribal members being unable to pay the back taxes and losing their land, which was then sold by the government.

There was also the language barrier, as many Anishinaabe families did not speak English. Arroyo said that was held against the families, who were seen as not being complicit.

The GTB lost its status as a tribal nation in 1872, when Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano incorrectly deemed that the tribe had been terminated by signing the Treaty of 1855. Federal courts have since determined Delano misread the treaty.

It would be 125 years — hard years with no assistance from the state or federal government — before the tribe would receive federal recognition. In 1980 the tribe was reorganized as the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. A Constitution was drafted and a government formed.

Arroyo said he’s not sure how long it will take to finally get resolution for the loss of their land.

“I think we’re prepared for however long this takes,” he said. “We’re going to be pushing this through as best we can.”

No decision has been made on what would be done with the money, should they get it, Arroyo said. He hopes the tribe will consider looking at why they are getting the money and what their ancestors had to endure. He hopes those who worked to have the tribe receive federal recognition in 1980 will be honored.

He hopes his people will never again be diminished.

“One thing that I’ve always been very grateful for is that our past leaders throughout our 40-year history were building towards the future. And so that’s what I hope we do. I hope we can maintain continuity, because what we do today matters. So I hope we’re able to continue what our past leaders started and build for the future so that future generations won’t have to go without.”

Woods retired in 2008 and now spends time educating people about her culture. She is proud that the GTB is fighting for what is right.

“It’s a major step, and I’m really proud of our tribe for making progress,” Woods said. “I hope they go for progress. And I hope our surrounding people, friends, our neighbors will support us and help us, and will finally see us.”

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