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A sign at the entrance of the Burt Lake Band’s historic cemetery on Chickagami Trail in Cheboygan County.

BURT LAKE — A Washington, D.C., judge ruled in favor of the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, clearing the way for their century-long pursuit of tribal recognition.

“Overall, I’m optimistic,” said Bruce Hamlin, Burt Lake Band Tribal Chairman. “We’re spotlighted nationally in this case. Our argument has been used by others who’ve gone after, and received, recognition.”

In January a federal judge ruled the Chinook Indian Nation of Washington state, could not be banned from re-applying for federal recognition.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson made a similar ruling in March regarding the Burt Lake Band. The Department of the Interior’s ban on re-petitioning, which had halted the band’s cause in 2015, was “arbitrary and capricious,” she said.

“This is one light at the end of a very, very long tunnel,” Hamlin said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which previously denied to recognize the band, has 60 days to respond.

“A re-petition is comparable to an appeal,” said attorney and former congressman Bart Stupak. “And an appeal is a basic right that everybody has.”

Stupak, of Venable LLC., a Washington D.C. law firm, has represented the band since 2015, though has long understood the details of their case, he said.

“I was running for office when they first approached me,” Stupak said Saturday. “And truly back then, I knew nothing about this case. I told them, ‘After I’m elected, I’ll be happy to take a look at it.’”

That was in 1992.

Congressional efforts succeeded in securing federal recognition for the Little Traverse Bay Band in 1994, and the Grand Traverse Band in 1980.

Leaders of both bands have submitted letters of support for Burt Lake, but Congress left them out.

Compared to other bands of Michigan’s American Indians — many 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 of whom live downstate at least part of the year for higher paying jobs.

But like those larger bands, Burt Lake descends from signers of the 1836 Treaty of Washington, in which Michigan’s Ottawa, or Odawa, and Chippewa ceded 7 million acres for white settlement, in exchange for reservation land and annual payments of cash.

The Burt Lake Band — then called the Cheboiganning Band — was given 1,000 acres along the western shore of Burt Lake in Cheboygan County.

Documents in tribal archives show band members did not trust President Andrew Jackson to make good on his side of the deal, however.

They used allotment money to buy large tracts of their own treaty land outright. Then they put it in trust “in perpetuity” with the Governor of Michigan, historical documents show.

The trust held for more than 50 years.

But on Oct. 15, 1900, Cheboygan County Sheriff Fred Ming, and land speculator John McGinn, assembled a posse, rode into the Band’s village, forced or carried people out of their homes, doused the houses with kerosene, and burned the village to the ground.

Twenty-five families were left homeless, with little food for the winter, no shelter for their animals, and nowhere to go.

It’s an event the band refers to today as “the burn-out.”

In 1914, the band sued the State of Michigan to get their land back. They lost.

It was the start of their 106-year quest within the justice system for acknowledgment of their sovereignty.

The next step took two decades.

Congress enacted the Indian Recognition Act in 1934, and the DIA’s Bureau of Indian Affairs soon began receiving recognition petitions.

One of those was from Burt Lake, whose leadership first applied in 1935.

More than 85 years later, the band is still waiting for an answer, Stupak said.

“They essentially stiff-armed us,” Hamlin said, of the unconstitutional treatment the band receved.

In 1978, the DIA formalized the process, with another layer of bureaucracy called the “Part 83 process.”

Part 83 required tribes and bands to show they’d been functioning as an autonomous unit “throughout history until the present.”

The Band assembled thousands of pages of paperwork and applied under the Part 83 process.

It took 20 years, a delay Stupak calls “unconscionable,” but they did hear back.

In 2006, the BIA rejected their petition. Band members had married into other bands and there were gaps in their paperwork, BIA investigators said.

Then in 2014, after decades of criticism, the BIA acknowledged its tribal recognition process was broken, and announced reforms.

“Specifically, the process has been criticized as too slow (a petition can take decades to be decided), expensive, burdensome, inefficient, intrusive, less than transparent and unpredictable,” the BIA said of its own rules.

The new rules would be more objective, the agency promised. Groups like the Burt Lake Band would have a new, if limited, chance to petition again.

The band re-grouped and hired Stupak.

When the BIA changed its mind and nixed re-petition opportunities in 2015, Stupak sued on behalf of Burt Lake. They should have the chance to appeal, he argued.

Judge Jackson of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, agreed. The no-appeal rule wasn’t fair, she said.

“One cannot reconcile the agency’s repetition of the word ‘reform’ with the agency’s breezy assurance in the pleadings in this case that nothing has changed,” she wrote in her 24-page opinion.

The BIA has 60 days to respond — a deadline that runs out next week.

Regardless of what that response is, Stupak said the band would fight on.

“For tribes or bands that had a reservation, they’d recognize you,” Stupak said. “That’s the most egregious part. Burt Lake’s reserve was purchased and paid for twice and was stolen from them. Everyone agrees on that. You’d think people would want to correct it.”

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