February 11, 2022 4 min read
Native Americans have called the Great Lakes area home for tens of thousands of years. Today, multiple tribes still reside here, including the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, which is made up of multiple member tribes. The Grand Traverse Band can be found just north of Traverse City in Leelanau County, where it operates several casinos and hotels spread over several hundred acres.
The Grand Traverse Band is a new name for an ancient compact between three different peoples – the Odawa (Ottawa), the Ojibwe (Chippewa), and the Bowdowadomi (Pottawatomi) peoples. Coming together in the dim past, these three peoples formed what was called the Three Fires Confederacy.
According to tribal lore, the ancestors of the Grand Traverse Band originated on the East Coast of Turtle Island, where they were told by their spiritual leaders to travel west in search of food and a new home. Today, there is archaeological evidence that the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi peoples (all of whom speak Algonquian) originated along the Atlantic coast and traveled westward.
The Three Fires Confederacy spread across North America before the coming of Europeans to the continent. They established trade routes that went as far west as the Rocky Mountains, up into northern Canada, east back to the Atlantic, and south to the Rio Grande. This trade network established the Confederacy as one of the preeminent powers of the time, bringing wealth and influence to the tribes.
When Europeans arrived, the French sought out the Confederacy to benefit from their trading network. The English followed suit, and for many years, there was an uneasy truce between all three nations. However, war soon broke out between the English and the French, which divided the Confederacy, as well. After the English won, the French withdrew into what would eventually become Canada, although the Confederacy continued to trade with both the English and the French.
Eventually, the English found themselves at war with the upstart American colonists. While much of the war took place along the Atlantic coast, the reverberations were felt throughout the Confederacy.
Several years after the close of the Revolutionary War between American colonists and the English crown, the new American government sought to make a deal with the people and offered the Treaty of 1836, also called the Treaty of Washington. This treaty gave birth to the state of Michigan. The people agreed to cede two-thirds of their land to the Americans, while also retaining one-third of the land for the people, who also reserved their hunting, fishing, and gathering rights, as well as the use of the land and waters, including the land ceded to the US government.
The treaty was largely successful, at least at first. For some years, settlers did not challenge the right of Native Americans to hunt, harvest, or otherwise use the ceded land for either subsistence or commercial purposes. However, that soon changed as more and more settlers pushed westward and the US government looked to expand its reach. This eventually culminated in yet another treaty – the treaty of 1855.
The Treaty of 1855 saw the lands held by the confederacy shrink substantially. What began as one-third of the state of Michigan dwindled to a reserve that included most of what would become Leelanau County, as well as a large portion of Antrim County. The reservation also includes portions of Benzie County, Charlevoix County, Manistee County, and Grand Traverse County. The rest was given over to the US government for use by settlers. Today, the reservation covers almost 630 acres, between reservation and off-reservation land. although the Band’s federal land base covers roughly 1,100 acres, although this is dispersed through the six-county area.
This period also saw an unofficial erosion of the people’s rights to fish, hunt, harvest, and use the lands they originally controlled for commercial and subsistence purposes. Much of the land that the Band occupies today was illegally taken, first by individual settlers encroaching on Native American-held lands, and then by towns, counties, and even the state and federal government. The Band has had to re-purchase a significant amount of the land it was originally granted.
It’s also important to note that the Band was virtually ignored by the government and no services were provided from shortly after the signing of the Treaty of 1855 and 1980. The Bureau of Indian Affairs held that, by signing the treaty, the people had terminated their status as a tribe. As a result, no state or federal aid was rendered for well over 100 years.
To say that the fight for recognition began in the 1930s is untrue, as the people never stopped struggling to have their tribe recognized. However, 1934 and 1943 marked two of the first attempts under the Indian Reorganization Act, although both of these attempts were denied. Finally, Dodie Harris Chambers applied for federal recognition of the tribe in 1978, and that petition was eventually granted in 1980. From that point on, the federal government has recognized the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians as a Tribe, with its own official constitution and government.
Today, the Band is one of the most successful Native American nations. It operates several casinos and hotels that generate substantial revenue, which is used to provide critical services for members of the Band throughout Michigan. These properties include Turtle Creek Casino and Hotel, Leelanau Sands Casino and Lodge, and the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. It should be noted that the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa is not a gambling center, but was designed to be an “unforgettable experience” set against the majestic natural beauty for which Michigan is famous.
While the Band has achieved considerable success, the fight for autonomy and equity continues. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians is an integral part of the Northern Michigan community and remains committed to fighting for the protections that Native Americans deserve in Michigan, throughout the US, and in Canada.