LANSING — Issues important to Michigan’s Native American community — including environmental, educational and domestic violence concerns — are among the top priorities of the newly formed Anishinaabek Caucus.
Grassroots efforts of individual Anishinaabe people from various tribes across the state culminated in the official recognition of the caucus last month within the Michigan Democratic Party.
Party chairperson Lavora Barnes authorized the caucus.
“(Being a caucus) gives us a platform to really get into the nitty gritty of affecting policy from the inside of the Democratic Party,” said Tom Shomin, co-founder of the caucus and member of the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
The other co-founders are Andrea Pierce of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, the caucus chairperson; Desmond Berry of the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the vice chairperson; and Julie Dye of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, caucus secretary. Shomin is the treasurer.
Anishinaabek translates to “the original people” and also refers to the three tribes in the Great Lakes Basin: Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwa (Chippewa) and Bodewadmi (Potawatomi). The tribes also are referred to as The Three Fires.
Tribal governments are non-partisan and are not involved in the caucus’ formation or actions, Shomin repeatedly emphasized. There is hope that the two entities will be able to work together to help facilitate the tribes’ needs, he added.
The distinct separation was a sentiment echoed by Thurlow “Sam” McClellan, tribal chairman of the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The tribe stays in the middle of the aisle because they have to work with both sides, he said.
McClellan said he doesn’t have any problem with the caucus’ existence and that there are issues it aims to address that the tribe also is invested in, such as preventing violence against women.
“Anytime that legislation that would help protect our women comes up (we support it),” McClellan said. “And I mean all women — don’t matter what color.”
Citizens from at least eight of the 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan have joined the caucus, Shomin said. There are about 40 members total and not all are Native Americans, he said.
Anishinaabek Caucus membership is open to any member of the Michigan Democratic Party, but chair positions are reserved for registered members of the state’s federally recognized tribes, a press release states.
The group already has brought forth — and succeeded in passing — their first resolution, which condemns the use of the term “Redskins.” It was passed unanimously during the Michigan Democratic Party 2019 Spring Convention.
The grassroots group, intent on getting more involved with local and state politics, chose the Democratic Party because it’s more closely aligned with their concerns — especially environmentally, Shomin said. Other issues they plan to address include low high school graduation rates and high rates of imprisonment, suicide and domestic violence.
“We believe that one of our duties in life is to take care of the earth,” he said. “That’s a bit part of our spirituality, who we are and what we’re supposed to do.”
He would love to see a similar caucus in the Michigan Republican Party, even though he himself can’t start one, Shomin added.
It’s a move John Roth — chairperson of the Grand Traverse Republican Party Executive Committee — said he thinks would be welcomed wholehearted. Any group reaching out to the parties is a great idea, he added.
“Native Americans aren’t monolithic,” Roth said. “Some vote Republican, some vote Democratic.
“(Anishinaabek) issues are concerns for all of us, not just Democrats,” he added.
The caucus being in the Democratic Party is long overdue and will be a win-win for everyone, said Chris Cracchiolo, Grand Traverse Democrats chairperson. Native Americans are a group that have been underrepresented in many ways — and not just in the Democratic Party, he added.
“We’ll fight for them and we’re all fighting for the same things,” Cracchiolo said, noting that there are many synergies between tribal and Democratic issues.
He declined to comment on his feelings regarding the formation of an Anishinaabek caucus in the Republican Party.