Dismay and delay: Internal documents reveal Grand River Bands meets all federal criteria to achieve recognition

Tribal chairman urges immediate recognition of tribe after sworn affidavit shows federal officials voted to recognize tribe in 2016, but failed to act

DATE: Wednesday, June 1, 2022

LANSING – Blockbuster internal documents prove the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians have met the criteria for federal recognition, and a leading federal historian called the delay of recognition “unconscionable.”

An affidavit from Aldo Salerno, longtime historian at the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgement. proves the tribe has met all seven criteria for federal recognition. Salerno was the head editor and historian on the Grand River Bands’ petition for federal recognition and the affidavit shows a favorable internal vote to recognize the tribe happened in late 2016.

Salerno blasted the inaction by federal officials in light of overwhelming evidence that the Grand River Bands should be recognized.

“Such a delay is unconscionable and intolerable,” Salerno wrote. “Therefore, I believe, based on abundant evidence, that the department should immediately issue a positive proposed finding and recognize the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians as an Indian tribe as quickly as required – within one year – under the 1994 regulations.”

Salerno was a historian for Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) from June 2001 to October 2017 and was head editor and historian for the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians petition from 2012 to 2017.

Key points from the affidavit include:

  • Based on his experience and research, Salerno concluded the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians met the requirements for federal acknowledgment as an Indian tribe.
  • In late 2016, the OFA team, consisting of five staff members (including Salerno), completed five full years of research as well as site visits and interviews, and produced 275 pages of analysis for the proposed finding, which underwent extensive review including three full drafts and two peer reviews.
  • The proposed finding was supported by a two-thirds majority of the OFA, including current Director Lee Fleming. It concluded the Grand River Bands met all seven of the required criteria under the 1994 federal acknowledgment regulations to be recognized. The completed proposed finding has sat dormant in the department for nearly six years.
  • Salerno concluded, “…the evidence for political authority shows the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians have been one of the most important Indian political groups in the state of Michigan since the treaty period.”

“Mr. Salerno and these blockbuster internal documents have only confirmed what we’ve known all along — that our tribe clearly meets the criteria for federal recognition, and yet we have been held back by politics and bureaucracy,” said Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. “I’m grateful he has brought this important issue to light and join his call urging the Department of the Interior to issue an immediate decision on our recognition status.”

The Grand River Bands has been under active consideration for federal recognition for nearly a decade, longer than any tribe has waited for a decision, Salerno said.

Salerno’s team found three key points that support the Grand River Bands’ federal recognition:

  • 92 percent of the tribe’s membership demonstrated descent from historical Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians listed on the 1908-1910 Durant Roll (NOTE: The Durant Roll was a census roll of all members or descendants of members who were on the roll of the Ottawa and Chippewa Tribes of Michigan in 1870, and were living on March 4, 1907;
  • External observers continuously identified the Grand River Bands as an Indian tribe since the 1870s, and;
  • The tribe had previous unambiguous Federal acknowledgment in the 1870s.

The Grand River Bands also released a letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior stating it will issue a decision on the tribe’s petition by Oct. 12, 2022, following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions that paused the federal recognition process.

“We thank Sec. Deb Haaland for putting our petition back on active consideration,” Yob said. “If it were not for the COVID-19 pandemic, our tribe would have been recognized long ago, providing long overdue benefits to our tribal members that are afforded to federally recognized tribes.”

Yob also thanks Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and members of the Michigan Congressional delegation who have been relentless advocates in urging the department to issue a decision.

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is state recognized tribe and has been “active consideration list” with the U.S. Department of the Interior since 2013. While on its last step for being recognized, the petition was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal recognition would allow the Grand River Bands to access resources that are only afforded to federally recognized tribes such as tuition, health care and housing assistance.

# # #

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is a native sovereign nation with agreements with the federal government dating back to 1795. The Grand River Bands originally included 19 bands of Ottawa people who lived along the Grand River and other waterways in southwest Michigan. Most of the Grand River Bands’ current membership residents in Kent, Muskegon and Oceana counties.