Curtis Williams fully acknowledges he was “that precocious, annoying kid in second grade.”
Matter-of-factly, he recounts how, since he already knew all of his math facts, he went to the local store and bought a bunch of gold stars and put them along the poster in his classroom next to his name.
“My teacher was pissed,” he recalled, failing to find the humor in the smart – and smart aleck – rascal in her midst. “My parents realized I was bored to tears. So my parents hooked me up with the school psychologist, who said I should be in high school already.”
For Williams, who today is in his 21st year as the seventh grade English teacher at Cranbrook Kingswood Boys' Middle School, finding an educational challenge, as well as an affordable opportunity, wasn't easy at the time, in the 1960s and 1970s. Williams is a full-blooded Native American Indian, a member of the Seneca tribe, who grew up on Seneca land about 30 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York. He uses the lessons he has learned from his own life as a teaching tool for his students, many of whom come from homes of affluence. “I come from a people of poverty and hard work was a way out. I'm hoping that same attitude, my students can learn from and not just get away with things.”
Williams explained that for him, education was a way off the reservation, as well as an opportunity for advancement.
“Where we were, I went to one of three (public) school districts – none of them good. I was lucky because I had a brain, and a lot of kids didn't,” he said. There were no schools on the Seneca reservation, although many reservations do have schools, depending on the size of the tribe and land mass and whether the contiguousness of the reservation's property can accommodate it. Some tribes, such as in Oklahoma and Arizona, have reservations that are more than 1,000 acres in size, with thousands of inhabitants, both native and non-native, living there.
In Michigan, three reservations have sizable land mass and inhabitants, none as large as out west, but tribal lands for the 12 recognized Michigan Native American tribes are similar to upstate New York – spread out, often not-contiguous, small.
A majority of the Native American population in Michigan no longer lives on reservations, but in cities. According to Fay Givens, executive director of American Indian Services in Lincoln Park, which provides social services to about 50,000 Native Americans in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, about 75 percent of Indians live in cities, with about 25 percent remaining on reservations.
“Most people have left reservations because there is very little police protections, lack of jobs,” she said. “They leave also for economics and education. If all the Indians went home (to a reservation), the reservation would be bankrupt in two weeks. There would be no housing, no education, no health care, no mortgage companies, because they don't give mortgages on reservations and building companies don't build on reservations. We compete for HUD money for housing, so it creates very poor housing on most reservations.”
“The reservation itself is like any society, it's full of Senecas, some that are married to tribal members, and some, although not a lot, that were not natives,” Williams said, of his native homeland.
Growing up, he said the tribal property was about 40 acres in the woods, where he, his parents and two younger sisters lived in a mobile home. His parents still live on the reservation – but today are in improved conditions.
“My parents live in a double-wide right now – it's a four-bedroom, two bath unit. Now they call them modular housing. The trailer I grew up in would fit in its living room,” Williams said.
After public elementary school, his parents and teachers said, “What are we going to do with this kid?” His parents looked at some of the private school options in the Buffalo area, from Catholic schools, “But I had no religious ties,” to a “rich private preparatory school, or am I going to go to this niche private school,” Calasanctius School, which while run by Jesuits, was an independent and non-denominational school for gifted boys. It closed in 1991 due to lack of funding. “I went there from sixth grade on. When I graduated, it had 46 kids, and my class had 16 kids. But for the first time, I was challenged. The rigor was twice as hard as standard education, and I took AP classes as a freshman. I could get into any college.”
It altered the trajectory of William's life.
Following Calasanctius, Williams was accepted to Princeton University and waitlisted at Stanford University, which was his first choice, so he did a 13th year at Exeter Academy – and was accepted to Stanford. “I was so ticked off they made me jump through a hoop, I said forget it, and went to Princeton,” he recalled.
Williams benefited from academic scholarships and academic prizes at each stage of his education, but most importantly, “If I wasn't Native I would have been dead in the water,” he said.
“We got protection from the government. It wasn't always positive, but there are protections in place, and if you know how to utilize them, they're to your benefit,” he noted.
Calasanctius was almost 40 miles away from his home, “but because of reservation geography, my transportation was covered. From my parents' point of view, that was valuable. School was an expense they weren't prepared for.”
Williams' father was an iron worker whose last job in the city of Buffalo, he said, was in 1977 or 1978. “He went around the country doing jobs, including in Port Huron.” He became a welder for nuclear power plants in the latter part of his career. Carpooling his son to a private school wasn't on his agenda.
Williams, a large man with the physique of a football linebacker, played some baseball, but not a lot of football – largely because he had to work before and after school in both high school and college. The Indian Education Act, passed by the U.S. government in 1972, also “helped me get money to make it manageable.”
The Indian Education Act established the Office of Indian Education and the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, providing federal funds for American Indian and Alaska Native education at all grade levels. It also empowered American Indian parents to form advisory boards for federally operated schools and for public schools that have programs for American Indian students.
The 1960s and 1970s was a period of civil rights protections for Native American Indians after centuries of discrimination and hardship, along with other disenfranchised and discriminated groups in the United States, with educational reform one aspect of that coin. Native Americans were technically outlawed from practicing their own religions until 1978, when a law, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, passed to protect and preserve their traditional religious rights and cultural practices. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 protects Native Americans, as well as all others, from having their civil rights infringed, as it prohibited discrimination for the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and since 1974, sex.
“In literature, we were called the 'Invisible Population.' The American Indian movement was at the tail end of the '60s and '70s. We bought into the other civil rights movements,” said Aaron Payment, first vice president of National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which was founded in 1944 to represent tribes and resist federal government pressure for termination of tribal rights and assimilation of their people. Payment is also chairperson of the Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Native Americans are citizens of the federal government as well as their own tribes – a hard-fought recognition that was not achieved until 1924. Michigan is home to 12 federally-recognized Indian tribes that are sovereign governments that exercise their own direct jurisdiction over their members and their territory. There are other tribes in Michigan still fighting for federal recognition. Tribal governments provide a wide array of government services to their members, from lawmaking, tribal police and court systems, health and education services, social services, and others. State government does not generally have legal authority over tribal governments and their tribal members inside the tribe's territory, which are lands that have been designated as the tribe's reservations or trust lands.
The term “Indian reservation” is a legal term for an area of land managed by a federally recognized Native American tribe under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs rather than the state they are situated in, and each of the 326 Indian reservations in the U.S. is associated with a specific Native American nation, although not all of country's 567 recognized tribes have a reservation. Some tribes have more than one reservation; some tribes share reservations; and some are fragmented because of past land allotments, sales to non-Native Americans, and other public and private real estate sales.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is the oldest agency in the U.S. Department of the Interior, first established in 1824, and currently provides services, either directly or through contracts, grants or compacts, to approximately 1.9 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives. The Bureau is responsible for the administration and management of 55 million surface acres and 57 million acres of subsurface mineral estates held in trust by the United States for Native Americans. They also provide education services for about 42,000 students.
Matthew Fletcher, Michigan State University law professor and Director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, and a member of the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes in western Michigan, said, “Land is held in historic land trusts (in Michigan), but the land is not all contiguous. It can be spread out over several counties, which mine is. Some tribes may refer to each parcel as a reservation, others as parts of a reservation.”
He said his reservation, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, currently has 1,000 acres, “but we have had to repurchase all but 12 acres of it in the last 40 years because they were taken through trickery, theft and violence. There's no one thing that caused us to lose our land other than the federal government failed us badly in keeping this land that was bargained for between sovereigns in the 1830s and then again in the 1850s. Twice when the U.S. government negotiated with us for the reservation, and both times they failed they us badly.”
The majority of his tribe “live off the reservation because we have so little land,” Fletcher said. Before the purchase of almost 1,000 acres, “most of our land was two Methodist churches and a cemetery. You couldn't live on the land if you wanted to – so we lived near the reservations.”
Payment, of the Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said his tribe was not federally recognized until 1972, after first applying for recognition in 1938 – and repeatedly after. He explained that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1938 permitted federal recognition of tribes, and it can be difficult for tribes to get federal recognition “because there's a fiduciary and financial responsibility behind it. There's land in exchange.” He said language in treaties state the U.S. government has to protect Indians, “'for as long as the grass grows, and the wind blows, and rivers flow.' It's our perspective that our ancestors knew just what they were doing.”
Payment, whose family has lived in the area, both on the U.S and Canadian side, for generations, only somewhat assimilating to white culture in the mid-1900s, moving into the city of Sault Ste. Marie off the land, “where the conditions were the worst of the worst, without indoor plumbing, poverty, racism. We were still separate.” The tribe was one of four tribes that signed the treaty of 1836, which allowed Michigan to become a state in 1837, he said, exchanging 14 million acres of land for promises.
“We receive money from the federal government – it is not welfare; it is not reparations; it is not from atrocities at the hands of federal Indian policy, but because we pre-paid,” he emphasized. “We're underfunded for the obligations, for our needs. The value of the land – we're getting the short end of the stick.”
Besides the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the other 10 federally recognized tribes in Michigan are the Bay Mills Chippewa Indian Community; Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians; Hannahville Indian Community (Potawatomi); Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (Chippewa); Lac Vieux Desert Band of Chippewa; Little River Bay Band of Ottawa Indians; Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians; Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Potawatomi Indians; Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Indians; and Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.
Michigan, and the Great Lakes area, was originally populated by the Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Huron, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Ojibwe – also known as the Chippewa, and Menominee Indians. Some tribes moved on naturally, following their prey and avoiding war, whether from other tribes or European conquerers; others were forced by the U.S. government to leave their native lands. It's a long story of settlement, cultural appropriation and assimilation, war, and a fight for autonomy. Ultimately, it's a tale of control and money.
“Go back to 1650, when European travelers first got to native Michigan. They arrived in small numbers – two, three, four, five people at a time, all men, all fur traders,” said Professor George Milne of Oakland University's Department of History. He said beaver was the main pelt, “the main resource of the Europeans, whether the French, Dutch or English, and it becomes very lucrative. The Native Americans were very aware of that, and played the Europeans against each other.”
That was a period of time known as the Beaver Wars – also known as the Iroquois Wars or the French and Iroquois Wars, from the 1640s to the 1680s, which were battles of economic welfare throughout the St. Lawrence River valley in Canada through the lower Great Lakes between the Iroquois and northern Algonquians and originally, their French allies, according to Lee Sultzman, author of “Iroquois: Beaver Wars.” As the Dutch arrived, they supplied Indians with guns and “valuable tools that the Iroquois could receive in exchange for animal pelts,” Sultzman said.
“When guns, iron tools and iron weapons reach the Great Lakes, it becomes very violent,” Milne said, with the musket available to Native American groups. “A group only needed a few muskets and iron tools to tip the power in their favor.”
While to Europeans, Native Americans appeared one and the same, there was – and is – no one homogeneous group. “Native American groups are very different, with different languages, different religions, different spirituality, different practices,” Milne said. “The biggest misconception most people have is they are not all they same – and they didn't all get along. There were some deep-seated rivalries and animosities.”
The French were done with both “New France” and violence with the Indians – “New France was always a loss leader for them,” Milne explained. “France wanted to do away with all of the violence because of the fur trade. It's the only reason they're in North America. They managed to get almost all of the Great Lakes nations and the Iroquois” – originally from upstate New York, but whose power had spread to encompass much of the eastern portion of the United States, the Mississippi valley and the Great Lakes – into a general peace, with the French acting as brokers, called the Peace of Montreal in 1701. With that action, “The French are able to set up in a couple of places in Michigan – at Mackinac Island, which they called Fort Michilimackinac, with Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac as the first governor. It was a choke point, where the Great Lakes came together, and they could buy up furs from Wisconsin, western Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and western Ontario.”
Cadillac then decided to move south and settled Detroit with a couple dozen Frenchmen, Milne said.
“He was a huckster,” Milne said. “He tells the French government, 'We can settle different Native groups,' so they have several Native groups settle the area. It's a real salad bowl, and it doesn't work. By 1711, it's open warfare with some groups, with the Sauk and Menominee on the receiving end. It took about 20 years to settle down, and a lot of groups moved west to avoid the hassle.”
At the same time, the French and English rivalry over territory and pelts took on greater impact, leading to the French and Indian War, from 1754 -1763, which Milne said was actually one finger of a global war being fought in North America, India, Africa and Europe between the two superpowers of the day – France and Great Britain, each with powerful navies and merchant marines.
“Most Indians supported the French. They saw them as just another group. A lot of French traders settled down and intermarried with Native Americans,” Milne explained, while, he said, the English were “a different story, drawing trade through Hudson Bay.”
Milne said the “real disaster” for the Great Lakes nations came with the American Revolution and the Peace of 1783, also called the Treaty of Paris, signed between the United States, Great Britain and France. As Milne explained it, Great Britain “at least on the map, gave the Great Lakes region to the United States.” France had exited North America in 1763, after the French and Indian War. “They said to Great Britain, 'We've had it, we've lost money for 150 years, Great Britain, you can have it.'”
In 1783, Great Britain allowed the U.S. to have land up to the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.
“There were almost no Americans between the Appalachians and the Great Lakes regions, maybe a handful of American fur traders,” he said. “But, no one asked the Native Americans about this. There were no Native Americans in Paris, no Native American diplomats – no one asked anyone who lived in the area.”
“We are the most marginalized population in the country,” asserted Fay Givens of American Indian Services. Whether historically or today, “We are never part of any consultation.”
“It's the beginning of the end for Native American autonomy,” Milne said of the peace agreement, as the U.S. began to send in settlers first to upstate New York, then Ohio, and later into Michigan. As white settlers began to settle and inhabit the area, they surrounded the Native Americans, taking their land, food sources, and ultimately, their ability to control their own destiny. Then, they began to be systematically removed from their native lands.
Another misconception is that Native Americans were not always tribes, but small communities of similar Native Americans, until well into the 1800s, when Native Americans were forced from lands of their heritage to “tribal” lands. “Today in the 21st century, they identify as tribal because of what happened with the U.S. government,” Milne said.
What happened was a systematic governmental effort to remove American Indian tribes from lands where white settlers wanted to live and farm, leading to the Indian Removal Act in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson, and subsequently enthusiastically enforced by President Martin Van Buren. The law authorized the president to negotiate with Native American tribes, notably from the southeastern U.S., for their removal to federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for white settlement of their ancestral lands. “The act has been referred to as a unitary act of systematic genocide, because it discriminated against an ethnic group in so far as to make certain the death of vast numbers of its population,” stated Guenter Lewy, professor emeritus of political science at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
It was also a time when treaties were signed between Native American tribes and the U.S. government, first in the 1830s, and in the 1850s, which preserved hunting and fishing rights and some land rights, although it pushed Indians in Michigan into specific land parcels, or “reservations.” To this day, the treaties endure.
“The idea of reservations was to concentrate Native American people, to make them accessible for administrative purposes, and to convert them to Christianity,” Milne explained. “Some reservations were to separate the Native Americans, to keep them away from white people – to protect them from getting ripped off by whites; others were to segregate them.”
The treaty rights, which include the right to hunt, fish and gather on established reservation land and certain other ceded territory, were reserved to specific tribes. These rights have been granted in perpetuity in exchange for the vast amounts of land ceded to the federal government by Native American tribes – although they assert they continually have to battle to enforce those rights.
“The treaties, for hunting and fishing, we had fights on fishing rights in Michigan in the 1970s and '80s,” said Eric Heneway, director of archives and records, Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, of fights tribal members had around the Great Lakes when they were threatened and assaulted by white fishermen. Kathryn Tierney, an attorney for Bay Mills Indian Community in the northeast part of the Upper Peninsula, argued a case in 1976, People v. LeBlanc, which further protected Indian fishing and treaty rights. Indians, using nets, were accused of using “lethal, non-selective devices” and taking fish that would not be available for sports fishermen. Tierney said similar nets had been used by Native American fishermen for generations and were legal under tribal law. If the state had forced the tribe to abide by Michigan law, Native Americans' ability to make a living would have been severely impacted, she asserted. The courts concurred, all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.
“Article Six of the Constitution declares treaties to be the supreme law of the land, so treaties are just as valid today as they were on the day they were signed, and treaty rights are legally binding as well,” according to Alessandro Michelucci, author of “Treaty Rights Struggle.”
The treaty rights are rights retained in treaties negotiated between sovereigns, and Native American tribes are recognized as sovereign nations. Treaty rights are tribal, not individual rights, and are held and regulated by the treaty signatory tribes. That interpretation of sovereign nation status later permitted Native American tribes to prevail in the adoption of gaming and casinos on their lands as an economic tool, which withstood court challenges.
Hemenway said understanding the time period in which the treaties were created is very important. “It was a time of great duress, of diseases, forced removal, the tail end of war,” he pointed out. “It was a terrible time for Indians. Tens of thousands were removed west of the Mississippi and thousands died of smallpox, and yet the U.S. government was telling us to sign these treaties. One treaty ceded 16 million acres to the U.S. government. But what options did they have?”
He credits “really good leadership” in the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa which kept them in their ancestral homeland. “It's very rare to have them in their homeland pre-Columbus.
The Native American people only make up one percent of the U.S. population today, so to even be here, and in your homeland is pretty remarkable.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are approximately 2.2 million Native Americans in the United States. There are estimated to be about 50,000 Native Americans in the tri-county area of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, with the majority residing in Wayne County. National Congress of American Indians' Payment said the census number can be misleading, “because the census allows you to recognize yourself only as federally recognized Native Americans or just as Indian, and an equal amount who identify as Indian, about 2.2 million are not federally recognized, meaning there's (really) about 5 million. A large number of Indians are disenfranchised.”
Payment said undercounting Native Americans is nothing new. “Once the government realized they had to uphold treaties, the government came up with a workaround to undercount American Indians in the census. For example, if you were away from home hunting, berry picking, your home and your family wasn't counted – and you didn't exist.” He said that is now reflected in their own records, as one way to trace their ancestral heritage and native blood is through written records of their heritage, along with field notes and annuities.
“All tribes must prove Indian blood and your ability to trace back,” he said. “There are large chunks of people who aren't counted.”
Acculturation of the treaty era was steeped in the European colonization blueprint, Payment pointed out, and was hardly unique – author Theda Perdue said it was originally proposed all the way back by George Washington. In an effort to assimilate with American culture, Native Americans were encouraged – or forced, depending upon the vantage point – to convert to Christianity, learn to speak and read English, and adopt European-style economic practices, such as individual land ownership and even, in some instances, ownership of African slaves, in direct contradiction to Natives' traditional communal land ownership and personal co-existence.
Despite congressional debates and some Christian missionaries opposing the act, Jackson prevailed in enacting the Indian Removal Act, as he viewed the eradication of Indian tribal nations as inevitable, having seen a similar Native American tribal demise in the northeast, according to H.W. Brands in “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.” “Indian tribes had become nearly extinct, Indian hunting grounds had been replaced with family farms, and state law had replaced tribal law,” Brands wrote. “He dismissed romantic portrayals of lost Indian culture as a sentimental longing for a simpler time in the past, stating that 'progress requires moving forward.'”
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 paved the way for the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of American Indians from their land into the west, becoming an event known as the “Trail of Tears,” a forced resettlement of the Indian population. Of the 15,000 Creeks who set out for Oklahoma, about 3,500 made it.
The Cherokee nation negotiated the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, which traded all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi for $5 million, relocation assistance and compensation for lost property. But by 1838, only about 2,000 Cherokees had left their Georgia homeland for Indian territory – when President Van Buren sent U.S. soldiers to expedite the removal process, according to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. At the end of bayonets, they marched Indians more than 1,200 miles, with reports of whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, smallpox, cholera and starvation prevalent along the way. Historians estimated more than 5,000 Cherokees died as a result of the journey.
Assimilation and loss of culture did not fade into the history pages once Indians were relocated to other lands.
Those Indians remaining in the United States or in U.S. territory had to be “dealt” with. Boarding schools were created by the government for school age Native American children who were forcibly removed from their families, taught English and punished if they spoke their native tongue or who practiced their own rituals or religion, beginning after the Civil War and continuing well into the 20th century.
“The way they went about it was horrific. They would just go to a town and round up the children,” Payment said. “They would chop the Indian's hair off, and in the Indian culture, hair is sacred. To make sure children wouldn't escape, they would tell them their parents died. We're a very spiritual people. When the children tried to do death rites, they were prohibited to pray or speak their language and they were punished for it. Many of the children were discombobulated, and horribly damaged.”
Initially, Payment said, the goal was simply to assimilate the children; later it became a way to create laborers and seamstresses. While some boarding schools lasted until 1978, Professor Fletcher of MSU Law School said up until 1930, many lower peninsula tribal children in Michigan went to the Mt. Pleasant School.
“Tribes negotiated for educational rights, and the government was doing pretty well until after the Civil War, and President Grant started boot camps, where he put in ex-military and missionaries running schools,” Fletcher said.
In Harbor Springs, the Holy Childhood School, a missionary school, was in operation through the 1980s.
“The goal of these schools was to prohibit Native language, which was forbidden, and would guarantee a beating,” Fletcher said. “There was limited amount of actual education. They taught manual labor, military discipline to both men and women, and many (Native) men went into the military after, because, really, that's all they knew.”
Payment said when many of the children left school, often around the age of 15, “they were treated differently by the tribe. They were ostracized because they were different.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, after the Mt. Pleasant School closed down, Fletcher said the government moved into forced adoptions – where Indian children were taken from Native families, either because there were family issues, or because they determined there were, or they had children that had been pulled from their families to go to school and were now homeless or orphaned, and they were placed with Caucasian families.
“They had all these Indians on their hands and they decided to adopt them out to non-Indians, to assimilate them, so they wouldn't know or recognize the tribe” Fletcher said. “Native families had no recourse. They would have to hire a lawyer, which they couldn't afford. They were treated as subhumans.”
Land obfuscation was a third way of stripping them of their customs and identity. “The U.S. government said, “'If we make them white, we won’t have to pay them anything,'” Payment said. Rather than encouraging Native Americans from remaining on tribal property, the government offered Natives allotments of land, which if they worked the land for 20 years, would become theirs. “It was an effort to dismantle Indian Nation and from being part of a community,” Payment asserted.
Further, there were lots of unscrupulous counties, he said. “When Indians were out hunting and gathering berries and other things, they purposely posted the land as vacant and sold it.” In that way, more and more Native land disappeared from tribal hands.
“I've been here for 26 years – I've seen what's gone on,” said Fay Givens, executive director of American Indian Services in Wayne County, a social services agency which feeds about 6,000 people a year among others services. “It still happens. Every day I see a child come in who has been taken from their family. It's common. The child loses their identity – and they have the highest suicide rate of any children in America, because if a child doesn't have any identity, they're lost.
“They're required by law to be put with an Indian family, but sometimes they say they can't find one – but often, they (the government) has alienated them, and they don't want to be foster parents because it's been such a negative experience for them. So then, the children are put with white or African American or any families, and they lose their Native American identity,” she continued. “We have adoptees who say, 'We're not accepted anywhere. We don't fit in the white world, we don't fit in this Indian world, and we don't feel like we belong anywhere.' It's been a real problem.”
Working to re-establish their tribal heritage after decades of assimilation is an effort tribes across the state – and the country – are involved in today. “It's been under attack for 200 years, to make us white, non-Indian. It permeated every aspect,” pointed out Heneway, director of archives and records for Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians near Harbor Springs. “A series of laws were enacted in the late 20th century to address, re-establish and rebuild our identity and culture. Many tribes have their own language, culture, programs for youth, natural resources. Different tribes have different programs. There is a big movement to reclaim what we can, but some things are gone forever.”
American Indian Services offers youth programs after school and in the summer to teach them traditional crafts, such as bead work, making masks, sugar bushing, making drums from skins, designing and creating their own clothing for pow wows, and other native tasks. “You can't go to a store and buy dance regalia. Everyone makes their own dance regalia for pow wows,” Givens said. She said pow wows are held somewhere in Michigan every weekend from March through September. “They're our social gathering, where we go to meet other tribes, meet other people, meet potential marriage partners. It's a celebration of life and culture.”
Williams, who sought education off the Seneca reservation in New York, said that in the 1970s, still a heightened period of assimilation for Native Americans, he received blowback from his relatives. “They'd say to me, 'Why are you acting so white?' But as soon as I got an award – it was, 'That's my nephew, that's my cousin.'”
Today, he said he knows little of the language and the traditions. Like many religions and ethnic groups, he experiences the ties through food.
“I'd love to learn the language, but it's not like Slavic languages where there are a lot of similarities (between languages). There are some commonalities, but they're from thousands of years ago,” he noted. “When I went home for Thanksgiving, I told my mom I wanted our traditional cornbread. It comes out like a wheel of concrete – unless you grew up with it. It's like home.”
The perception of Native Americans as poverty-stricken, riddled with high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment and suicide is both true and false – depending on who you talk to. Aaron Payment said the picture painted is accurate.
“We have the highest rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, unemployment – we have the greatest need for everything,” the chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians said. He cited a report updated last year, “Broken Promises,” from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, noting that for Native Americans, they are an underclass reaping the results of decades of forced removal, assimilation and lack of opportunity, which has perpetuated a cycle of poverty.
MSU's Matthew Fletcher disagrees. “It does exist in any population with a high rate of poverty, but it also shows that for those who live on reservations, they have a lower rate of alcohol and drug abuse than similar populations of similar economics living near them.”
In the early 1980s, bingo opened the door to economic opportunities for Indians in Michigan, as long-term economic problems and poverty on reservations led several Michigan tribes to seek revenue and jobs for tribal members by opening large scale bingo operations. With that success, they next moved to open “Las Vegas” type casinos. At the time, other than the lottery, gambling was still illegal in Michigan. Fred Dakota, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian tribe, personally challenged Michigan's authority to regulate Indian gaming, and he prevailed.
There are now 27 Indian casinos or bingo operations in Michigan, providing revenue to tribes and tribal members, as well as jobs for Natives and non-Natives in their local communities.
“For most tribes, it's brought us up from abject poverty to lower middle class,” Fletcher said. “At least as important as the federal government recognizing the tribes being able to have self-determination is it creates economic opportunity.”
It's also created partnerships with the state of Michigan. Tom Durkee, business development manager, Michigan Education Development Corporation (MEDC), who works with all 12 tribes on a $1.3 million annual grant program to support economic development for the tribes, for job creation and tribal investment, he has worked to provide funds over five years to repurpose the former casino site of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians into a $24 million multi-tenant commercial project, assisting the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians to rebuild two commercial fishing docks on tribal properties in the Upper Peninsula by providing some grant funds, among other projects, with tribes required to contribute at least a 20 percent match.
Durkee said, “Native Americans have economic power – I believe they do and MEDC believes so, by the nature of the locations of their reservations, where their tribes are located, they are the largest employers in rural areas. They operate roads, schools, health care and social service systems, police and fire. They're sovereign nations so they operate as such, which is a full government. You add in their other economies, like casinos, gaming, farmers markets and manufacturing, and they tend to be large employers in rural areas.”