BRUTUS — The Burt Lake Band’s annual memory walk is only 1.5 miles long — but as elders, children, dogs on leashes and people carrying flags set the pace, two hours are usually needed to complete it.
“I think about all of my ancestors, and it’s like they’re here with me,” band member Josh Shenoskey, 33, of Pellston, said.
“On other days they’re probably here, too, but on this day for sure.”
Compared to other bands of Michigan’s indigenous Americans — many native leaders prefer the word “band” to “tribe” because they say it more accurately conveys their communities — the Burt Lake Band is small.
At last count, there are 323 enrolled members, many who live at least part of the year downstate for higher paying jobs.
Their community remains tight-knit.
Like the Grand Traverse Band and the Little Traverse Band, the Burt Lake Band descends from signers of the 1836 Treaty of Washington. That year Michigan’s Ottawa and Chippewa ceded 7 million acres to the government for white settlement, in exchange for reservation land and annual payments of cash.
The very next year, in 1837, Michigan became the 26th state in the union.
Unlike the two larger bands, however, the Burt Lake Band is not officially recognized by the federal government. The efforts of generations of members to seek to seek federal acknowledgment have yielded little but bureaucracy and denials.
Recognition brings with it opportunities for healthcare and college scholarships, among other benefits.
Any day, a decision is expected on whether or not they can pursue their quest with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Both the Grand Traverse Band and the Little Traverse Band have written letters in support. A federal judge in Washington D.C. is expected to rule on a lawsuit the band filed before the end of the month.
“We feel good about it,” said Bart Stupak, an attorney who is representing the band. “The only one who can vacate a treaty is Congress. And Congress never vacated our treaty.”
Stupak, and the band, contend they were never un-recognized.
Stupak represented Michigan’s first district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2011 and during his time as a congressman, Stupak tried to get the band recognized.
He worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and sponsored legislation, to no avail. In 2009, the BIA declined the Burt Lake Band’s application for federal recognition, and said the band could not appeal.
Now an attorney with Venable, a Washington D.C.-based law firm, Stupak blames bureaucratic mistakes, faulty decisions, and bad timing. He argued the band can appeal and won the opportunity to present the case in federal court.
Complicating the case today, is the workload of the judge assigned to the case.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman oversaw sentencing of former Trump Campaign Manager, Paul Manafort, the controversial bail conditions of former Trump associate, Roger Stone, and some related court filings for former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn.
Regardless of those high profile filings, Stupak said the Burt Lake case is a tragedy and the band is to be commended for their will to continue fighting.
Last week a few dozen members set out together on the walk on a route that winds from the historical cemetery on Chikagami Trail, and arriving at their current cemetery behind Assumption of Mary Catholic Church, on Indian Road, just after noon.
Members say a clock is one thing, but the past is calculated differently. When measured against history, the walk has lasted for more than a century.
On Oct. 15, 1900, Cheboygan County Sheriff Fred Ming, and land speculator John McGinn, assembled a posse, rode into the Burt Lake Band’s village, forced or carried people out of their homes, doused the houses with kerosene, and burned the village to the ground.
Then according to the Cheboygan Tribune, it started to rain.
Twenty-five families were left homeless, with little food for the winter, no shelter for their animals, and nowhere to go.
An event few outside the band are aware of, and which the band refers to today as, “the burn-out.”
Most took refuge with relatives, and tried to recover their land, but Ming and McGinn claimed the arson was a legal eviction for unpaid taxes.
University of Michigan researchers have identified remnants of a native village on Burt Lake peninsula beginning as early as the 12th century, though the band’s current struggle aligns more closely with Michigan becoming a state.
The Burt Lake Band –- then called the Cheboiganning Band -– was given 1,000 acres, but members didn’t trust President Andrew Jackson to make good on the deal.
So they used their allotment money to purchase their own treaty land, and then put it in trust to the governor of Michigan.
That ownership strategy worked well for more than 50 years, and the village thrived.
Sometime near the turn of the century, the land was mistakenly put on the tax roles, and delinquent notices were published in the newspaper.
These notices were in English, which band members could not read, and did not list the landowners’ names or addresses, but only the lengthy and often illegible legal descriptions. McGinn paid the erroneously assessed taxes, then applied for and received a writ of eviction.
The Cheboiganning Band took McGinn to court, and were represented by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, but McGinn prevailed.
A judge said the Treaty of 1836 had dissolved the Ottawa and Chippewa governments. An idea legal scholars today say is laughable, and band members say is insulting and perhaps even criminal.
But the Burt Lake Band is resolute. Since 1936, generations of members have pursued federal recognition of their sovereignty, a decision on the lawsuit is expected soon, and so for now, they walk.
To bless band participants, a little after 11 a.m. Shenoskey took off his baseball cap, cleared his mind, looked to the sky and then lit a smudge stick.
Aromatic sage smoke hovered over the band’s tiny historical cemetery, located high on a bluff overlooking the northwestern shore of Burt Lake.
When the walk finished, members gathered at picnic tables and in folding chairs at a home owned by the Parkey family, for a potluck dinner.
“Bless this food, bless everyone here and bless those who are not here, no matter the reason,” said band member, Reena King.
Lids came off Crock-Pots, bags of chips were opened, cakes and pies were cut into slices, and tickets sold for a raffle and a 50/50 drawing.
The sun was out and a festive mood prevailed, in spite of an impending legal decision central to the band’s future.
Sometime soon Judge Jackson can either deny their appeal, send their application for federal acknowledgement back to the BIA, or force the BIA to negotiate with the band.
Stupak said the judge must make her ruling before the end of the month, or else explain the delay to the court administrator. Something federal judges do not like to do, he said.
“I’m hopeful. The band is hopeful. It’s the right thing to do.”