A group of Mt. Pleasant-based Native Americans, including 66 removed from the rolls of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in November, are seeking federal recognition of the original three bands of American Indians that first settled in Isabella County in the mid-1800s.
No one has disputed that most of those behind the effort are Native American descendants of the historical three tribes, but they claim to have been disenrolled from the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe for historical quirks linked to inappropriate rulings and poor record keeping by the federal government.
Among those leading the effort is Ben Hinmon, a former Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Council member whose grandmother, born on the Mt. Pleasant reservation and placed in the Mt. Pleasant Indian School in 1906 at the age of 8, was posthumously stripped of membership in November.
Removal of the late Malinda (Pontiac) Hinmon from Tribal rolls also stripped membership from Hinmon and 44 of his relatives, who are among 66 removed from Tribal membership rolls late last year.
At least 700 to 900 and up to 1,000 Native Americans who trace to those historic tribes, but are not members of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, could gain federal recognition under the latest effort, Hinmon said.
To illustrate the record-keeping and federal administrative quirks, Hinmon points to a photograph of his grandmother and her sisters. While his grandmother is no longer a Tribal member, one of her sisters is the grandmother of newly-elected Tribal Chief Steve Pego.
“What I’m doing is defending my family and their inherent right to be a member of the Swan Creek, Black River and Saginaw Chippewa,” Hinmon said. “It’s a matter of blood.”
Those original three bands, who settled on federal land set aside for them in Isabella County beginning in the 1850s, were later formed into the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
But because older federal records could not be located, and because the Bureau of Indian Affairs was allocated only $2 million to reform all tribes in the nation, federal authorities instead formed the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe as a group of “Indians living on a reservation” and relied on later residency rolls for membership purposes.
“We were not disenrolled because of blood quantum,” Hinmon said. “We were disenrolled because we didn’t fit the model of Indians living on a reservation.”
Hinmon and Chad Avery, a Mt. Pleasant resident with close relatives who are members of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe but who has never been on the rolls himself, met with federal officials in November to begin the effort of seeking federal recognition of the historic bands.
At issue, they claim, are hundreds of Native Americans whose ancestors lived on the Isabella Reservation after 1855 but who had moved in the ensuing years. In the 1930s, federal administrators picked records from 1883, 1885 and 1891 as key to determine official membership in the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe because earlier records could not be located.
“Isabella was supposed to be a permanent home by treaty never to be taken out of Indian ownership,” Avery said. “But many moved back to their traditional homes and were scattered all over. This was a time of limited resources, and the government was faced with the task of identifying all who qualified to be on the new voter lists.”
November’s meetings in Washington, D.C., were with Lawrence S. Roberts, deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs, and R. Lee Fleming, director of federal acknowledgment for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Hinmon and Avery said.
Because the Swan Creek, Black River and Saginaw bands lost federal recognition under an administrative order, and because the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe was created by administrative order, Hinmon said no act of Congress is required to reaffirm the tribes and recognition can be granted by BIA officials.
“We were not terminated by an act of Congress or a treaty,” Hinmon said. “Reaffirmations simply means we are recognized as an historical tribe by the federal government.”
Organizers will submit applications for reaffirmation and supporting documents within the next two or three months.
If granted, federal recognition would provide assistance with healthcare and housing and could make possible efforts to establish Indian gaming separate from the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe’s Soaring Eagle Casino.
“Many of these people are impoverished and living hand-to-mouth,” Hinmon said. “They are not in any way as fortunate as members of a federal tribe.”
Since disenrollment two months ago, Hinmon said two of his family members with homes and mortgages on the Isabella reservation have been told their land leases are being cancelled by the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, and others have been denied medical treatment at the Tribe’s federally-funded clinics.
Technically, Hinmon said he is even now in violation of federal law for sacred eagle feathers he owns that were perfectly legal until he lost membership.
“I’m 4/4s Anishinaabe, but not an Indian in the eyes of the government,” Hinmon said. “I am now considered a non-Indian.”
Of Michigan’s 13 federally-recognized Indian tribes, five others have been reaffirmed in recent years by federal administrative action at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.