August 3, 2015

Ottawa Indians: The Restoration Era (1889 – 1994)


Despite the fact that the 1855 Treaty was intended to provide the Grand River Ottawa with permanent Reservation homelands, many officials representing the United States government responsible for protecting the Grand River Reservations actively assisted non-Indians in taking lands reserved for the Grand River people. Nearly two-thirds of the land within the Grand River Ottawa Reservations was transferred to non-Indians by 1880.


With few exceptions, federal officials completely abandoned their responsibilities to our Grand River Ottawa relatives. Federal officials also adopted a new interpretation of the 1855 Treaty that considered the tribal status of the Ottawa’s governments as dissolved – meaning, we were no longer sovereigns but simply Indian citizens of Michigan. Consistent with this view, the federal government closed the Michigan Indian Agency in 1889.

This left the Ottawas to the mercy of those who wished to exploit them or their remaining property. As many current Little River Tribal members know, our Grandparents and Great-grandparents did not leave the Grand River Reservations. They simply crowded onto the few remaining parcels with other families. Some lived in settlements on homestead lands just outside the Reservation that had been obtained under one of the “remedial” homestead laws described in Part 3. Other families joined relatives who still lived in settlements on the 1836 Manistee Reservation.

A special census of Michigan Indians conducted in 1890 confirmed that Grand River Ottawa’s continued to exist as distinct social, political and cultural communities on the Reservations. Few Ottawa people spoke English.

Most Ottawa people continued to make their living by trapping, hunting, fishing and gathering berries/roots from their Reservations and throughout 1836 Ceded lands. Despite the federal government’s attempt to write-off the “tribal status” and treaty obligations to the Ottawa, Ottawa leaders refused to let the federal government disregard its commitments. Ottawa leaders from various Reservation communities assisted individual Band members in presenting claims to federal officials to seek recovery of lands that had been denied or taken from members.

Grand River Ottawa leaders also presented petitions demanding the United States honor its Treaty-based obligations to provide a Reservation homeland and financial assistance to their people. Similar petitions were filed by leaders from Little Traverse and Grand Traverse communities.

A lawsuit against the federal government to recover annuity and trust fund money wrongly denied the Ottawa Bands under the 1855 Treaty eventually resulted in a judgment against the United States in 1905. In order to pay this claim to the descendants of the 1855 Treaty signatories, the federal government commissioned a new census of the Michigan Ottawa.

Federal officials believed that census would identify very few Ottawa descendants. Instead, the Special Agent assigned to prepare the roll of Grand River Ottawa found communities of Ottawa Bands living on and near the Reservations. Durant’s roll found substantial portions of Grand River Ottawa living in towns they had built on and near their Reservations contrary to the federal government’s assumption that Grand River Ottawa Bands had been “dissolved” and assimilated into Michigan society.

They continued to recognize traditional chiefs and continued to live as culturally-distinct people. Nearly 700 (25% of the total population) Grand River Ottawa people still resided on or near the 1836 Reservation and the Mason County portion of the 1855 Reservation. In addition to providing the “base roll” that is used today by the Little River Band and other Michigan Ottawa/Chippewa Bands, Durant’s Roll also confirmed that official census numbers grossly undercounted the number of Ottawa people living on and near their Reservations.

Throughout the 20th Century, Grand River Ottawa leaders continued to pursue claims for both land and money due them. Among the most prominent leaders during the early 20th Century were Sampson Robinson, Jacob Walker Cobmoosa and Enos Pego.

In 1910, Sampson Robinson and other Reservation community leaders (William [Paquotush] Sam and William Micko) organized a committee and hired attorneys to pursue claims for land and money. At the same time, Jacob Walker Cobmoosa and Henry Pego were organizing other Grand River communities and formed a coalition with other Ottawa leaders from the Grand Traverse and Little Traverse Reservations to pursue financial and other claims under their treaties.

This group held a joint council on the Manistee Reservation in 1917 to discuss their plans. These community leaders continued the practice of previous Grand River Ottawa communities of selecting headmen and speakers to represent their communities and to meet with United States officials in Washington, D.C. on a government-to-government basis.

Sampson Robinson and Jacob Walker Cobmoosa shared the goal of pursuing land claims, focusing on seeking compensation from the United States for lands illegally taken from their Bands. Cobmoosa obtained a power of attorney from 358 Ottawa people authorizing him to pursue land and other claims against the federal government. The names of the signers on Cobmoosa’s document include a number of Little River Ottawa familes: Bailey, Battice, Genereau, Kelsey, Koon, Lewis, Medacco, Memberto, Pego, Pete, Peters, Sam, Theodore, and Wabindato.

During the 1920’s, Cobmoosa and Robinson successfully lobbied Congress for introduction of legislation that would have allowed the Ottawas to pursue their land and money claims. Federal officials attempted to argue that Cobmoosa and Robinson could not represent the interests of the Grand River Ottawa because the Bands’ status had been “dissolved” by the 1855 Treaty. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells opposed the legislation arguing that: “By the 5th Article of said Treaty the Indians tribal organization was dissolved and the Indians in effect agreed to become citizens.

There are no funds available for disbursement to them and the Government has no land in trust for the tribe or any members thereof.” (emphasis added) Although the United States Senate passed the legislation, the bill died due to lack of support by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. This lack of support from the Indian Affairs office would continue to hinder the efforts of Grand River Ottawa leaders until September 1994.

Despite the setback in 1917, Jacob Walker Cobmoosa returned from Washington, D.C. to Michigan and continued his work on behalf of the Grand River Ottawa. Beginning in 1922, Cobmoosa began work to make a detailed list of all of the claims that individual Grand River Band members had relating to their lands. Cobmoosa continued to write letters to the federal government outlining the claims of the Grand River Ottawa and asking that lands be purchased for the Band and Band members. There is no indication that any of the claims identified by Cobmoosa received any consideration by federal officials; however, Cobmoosa’s efforts inspired a new generation of Ottawa leaders who would later successfully bring financial claims against the United States on behalf of the Grand River Band Descendant’s Committee and the Northern Michigan Ottawa Association.

Indian Reorganization Act

In the 1930s, the policy of the federal government shifted from trying to assimilate Indian people by “allotting” land within Indian reservations to individual Indians and non-Indians to a policy intended to strengthen Tribal governments. In 1934, a landmark law known as the “Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA) was enacted.

The IRA sought to improve the condition of Indian communities by strengthening Tribal governments by allowing those governments to organize under a constitution. The IRA also ended the practice of allotting reservation lands and provided a mechanism to assist Tribes in re-acquiring lands within their reservations.

At the request of Jacob Walker Cobmoosa, Jerome Medacco wrote to Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier to ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs to acquire lands for the Grand River Ottawa within their Reservations so the Grand River Ottawa could take advantage of the IRA. Word of potential benefits under the IRA spread to various Grand River communities. Petitions requesting assistance under the IRA were filed by Arthur Moby on behalf of the Grand River Ottawa residing on the Manistee Reservation and by Enos Pego on behalf of the Grand River Ottawa living on the 1855 Reservation in Mason and Oceana Counties.

Those petitions specifically asked the United States to provide them with reservation lands. John Collier and other Bureau of Indian Affairs employees met with Grand River delegations in Manistee, Muskegon, and Grand Rapids in 1935 and 1936 to discuss their potential reorganization under the IRA. As those discussions progressed, the issue of whether or not the Grand River Ottawas would be allowed to reorganize and take advantage of the benefits under the IRA hinged on the issue of reservation land.

As a result of the closure of the Mackinaw Agency over 40 years ago, the BIA had no current institutional knowledge of the history of the Grand River Bands’ Reservations. Most of the lands within the Grand River Bands’ Reservations had been conveyed – in many cases illegally – to non-Indians.

Those lands that had been conveyed to individual Grand River Band members were transferred as “fee patents” and Band members quickly lost title to most of those lands through illegal tax sales and fraud. Because there were no “trust” lands within the Reservations, BIA officials took the legally incorrect position that no Grand River Reservations still existed.

At that time, most federal officials did not recognize the distinction between “land ownership” and “reservation boundaries.” Federal officials believed that the Grand River Ottawa could not reorganize under the IRA until “new” reservation lands, held in “trust” by the United States, were purchased for the Bands. In the end, federal officials refused to allow the Grand River Ottawa (and other Michigan Ottawa communities) the opportunity to receive assistance and to reorganize under the IRA. Federal officials stated a number of reasons for their decision.

Most notably, federal officials stated that the Grand River Ottawa could not vote to reorganize under a constitution unless and until reservation lands were acquired for them. Unfortunately, the burden on the federal government caused by the Depression meant that no additional appropriations would be approved to permit the acquisition of “new” reservation lands for the Grand River Ottawa.

Federal officials also continued to re-state their belief that the tribal organization of the Grand River Bands had been “dissolved” under the 1855 Treaty and that the Grand River Ottawa were all citizens of Michigan.

Northern Michigan Ottawa Association

In 1946, the United States created the Indian Claims Commission to resolve the numerous legal claims that Indian tribes nationwide had against the United States government for wrongs committed by federal officers and agencies.

Grand River Ottawa leaders, who had unsuccessfully tried to bring treaty-based claims against the United States acted quickly to use this new process to pursue their claims. Initially, Jacob Walker Cobmoosa, still using Power of Attorney he received in 1918, attempted to file the claims on behalf of the Grand River Ottawa. Cobmoosa’s efforts were picked up by a new generation of Ottawa leaders, Levi McClellan, Robert Dominic and Waunetta Dominic, who had formed a new organization, the Northern Michigan Ottawa Association (NMOA). With Cobmoosa’s support, the Dominics and the NMOA hired attorneys to pursue the claims of the Grand River Ottawa (and other Ottawa communities) against the United States.

Dominic asked Cornelius Bailey to meet with Grand River Ottawa Elders to collect documents and other information they may have concerning claims against the United States. Ultimately, the NMOA and its attorneys drafted a complaint listing eleven claims for unconscionable dealings by the United States government in the way it compensated the Ottawa for lands under various treaties. While the prosecution of those claims proceed ed, the NMOA continued organizational efforts to serve as an “umbrella” government for Ottawa communities throughout Michigan.

The NMOA organized itself as an umbrella council for local units that elected their own officers who were sent to serve on a central committee. The Grand River Ottawas elected several local units representing Reservation communities and urban/out-of-state communities. Units 5 and 7 of the NMOA represented the Reservation communities in Manistee, Mason, Oceana and Muskegon Counties.

Although many Reservation-based Grand River Ottawa families wanted to pursue claims for Reservation lands, the NMOA leadership made clear that claims being pursued were for compensation for lands the Ottawa and Chippewa were forced to sell to the United States under the 1836 Treaty, not for the return of lands illegally taken from the Band or Band members.

The NMOA won claims against the United States in 1964 (for Grand River Ottawa claims under the 1821 Treaty of Chicago) and 1968 (for Ottawa/Chippewa claims under the 1836 and 1855 Treaties). The Indian Claims Commission agreed that the federal government had knowingly paid too little money for millions of acres the Ottawa and Chippewa had sold to the United States.

The Grand River Ottawa voted to divide the funds awarded to them as per capita payments to Grand River persons who were ¼ Ottawa blood or more. The Grand River Ottawa, through the Grand River Band Descendant’s Committee, also exercised their political will to win Congressional approval of their proposed distribution plan over the objections of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Restoration of Tribal Status and Reservations

Although the matter of restoring sovereignty to the Ottawa Bands and the status of their Reservations remained unsettled, the Grand River Ottawa’s political victory in obtaining approval of their distribution plan empowered the Grand River leadership to seek broader recognition of their political status. Grand River leaders formed new organizations (Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, Inc., and the Thornapple Band of Ottawa Indians, Inc.) to promote broader political/community goals.

Grand River Ottawa leaders or headmen began seeking funds to develop housing for members residing on their Reservations and again petitioned the United States to provide lands to the Bands within their Reservations. Leaders in the Oceana County portion of the 1855 Reservation sought funds to develop housing for members residing on or near the Reservation. Leaders on the Manistee Reservation petitioned federal officials to acquire lands within the Reservation for their use. Leaders also contacted the Native American Rights Fund for legal assistance in obtaining restoration of Manistee Reservation lands. Bureau of Indian Affairs officials responded by telling them that land and services were only available to bands and tribes that were “federally recognized.”

This created a “Catch-22” situation for the Grand River Ottawa because these same Bureau of Indian Affairs officials had been telling Grand River Ottawa leaders that only those bands and tribes that had “reservation lands” could be recognized as sovereigns. Thus, the matter of restoration of the United States’ recognition of the Bands’ political status and reservation status became more frequent topics of discussion at NMOA meetings.

The concepts of “federal recognition” and “federal restoration” were new to both the Ottawa and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Those concepts appear to have originated as part of the 1977 American Indian Policy Review Commission’s examination of the history of Indian tribes’ relationship with United States. One result of that Commission’s work was establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ regulations allowing “unrecognized” tribes and bands to petition the Bureau to have their “status” as tribes recognized and to reestablish governmentto- government relations with the United States. In the mid-1970s, the issue of “reservation” status of lands in Michigan also received renewed attention from Bureau of Indian Affairs in connection with efforts to identify claims as part of the process of implementing fed eral legislation intended to resolve thousands of claims nationwide.

As part of this process, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was charged with identifying potential land claims possessed by Tribes, individual Bands, and Band members, including claims on Michigan reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted with Michigan Indian Legal Services to examine land transaction records; however, it quickly became apparent that the amount of time and funding allowed for this task would not be sufficient. In addition, it also became apparent to federal officials that many of the claims being investigated on the Ottawa Reservations involved wrongdoing by the federal government.

Funding for the project was ended in 1981 before the investigators were able to identify potential claims of the Grand River Ottawa or Band members. This most recent neglect – if not wrongdoing – by the federal government apparently took place without the knowledge of Grand River Ottawa leaders. The Manistee Reservation-based Ottawas who formed the “Thornapple River Band”, later formed a second nonprofit corporation called the “Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.”

The name “Little River Band” was chosen because the Band owned a small piece of land on the Little Manistee River. In 1991, Band members obtained the first of several federal grants intended to assist that portion of the Grand River Ottawa petition the Bureau of Indian Affairs to restore their tribal sovereignty. They also asked Senators Donald Riegel and Levin and Congressman Dale Kildee to urge Congress to pass legislation that would recognize that the Ottawa continued to exist as sovereigns or governments.

Although this particular effort was focused on restoration of the federal government’s recognition of the status of the Bands as sovereigns, Tribal Council members involved in the legislation knew that restoration of the Reservations was an integral part of this effort.

The Tribal Council and community members involved in the reaffirmation efforts also knew that the Grand River Ottawa had, in the eyes of the federal government, lost their sovereignty as a result of having lost – mostly through wrongdoing on the part of federal and state officials – title to the lands within their Reservations.

In cooperation with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa and Pokagon Potawatomi, the Little River Ottawa achieved their goal. More than one hundred years after the United States claimed the Ottawas had been dissolved, the United States Congress passed a law that would restore and reaffirm the status of the Little River Band of Ottawa as a sovereign – as the political successor of nine (9) of the nineteen (19) Bands of Grand River Ottawa. President Clinton signed the bill into law on September 21, 1994.

Little River leaders who worked to win this legislation laid the groundwork for restoring the recognition of the Tribe’s Reservations and to recover lands within those Reservations. The restoration legislation reestablished, all rights and privileges of the Bands, and their members thereof, which may have been abrogated or diminished before the date of the enactment of this Act … The Secretary shall acquire real property in Manistee and Mason Counties for the benefit for the Little River Band.

Language of the legislation restored the political sovereignty of the Little River Band Ottawa Indians as a Tribal government. The words also refer to all treaty rights and privileges that were taken from the tribe. The words were intended to refer to the reservation land the Tribe lost during the 1870s.

The law specifically requires the United States to buy land in the counties where the reservations are located for the restored tribe. With the support of Tribal members, the Tribal Council and Tribal Ogema are working to get the United States to honor this most recent commitment. The Little River Band Tribal Council continues the work of our ancestors to restore our Reservation land so that our rights as Ottawa people – and as a Nation – can never be denied to us again.

Ottawa Indians
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