On Feb. 23, the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) rejected the application of Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians for federal recognition. Michigan tribes operate most retail casinos in the state and hold 12 of its 15 online casino licenses, so it’s a decision with repercussions for gambling in Michigan. The BIA’s ruling comes after many extensions and 29 years since the tribe first petitioned for federal status.
If the Grand River Bands had achieved federal recognition, they would reap multiple benefits of sovereign status. Among these would be the ability to negotiate compacts under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. That would mean the ability to open a retail casino and, from there, to apply for an online gambling license. The Michigan online casino market currently has its maximum allowable number of brands, so federal status for the Grand River Bands would have been a rare opportunity to squeeze one more operator into the market.
Instead, their rejection could eventually pave the way for another tribe, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, to open a casino in the area. Little River Band is among the state’s federally recognized tribes and operates the Little River Casino Resort. For online gambling and sports betting, it is partnered with BetRivers.
The Little River Band hopes to open a second casino, tentatively named the Lakeshore Casino and Resort. However, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer refused to authorize the plan due to the Grand River Bands’ claim to the land where the casino would be built. However, opening a second retail location would not impact online gambling in the state. Michigan regulations only allow one online brand per tribe or commercial casino operator, not per casino property.
The Grand River Bands Failed To Meet Criteria
Grand Rivers Bands’ rejection comes after 15 extensions, including nine since 2017. The tribe filed for recognition in 1994. The BIA based its decision on the tribe’s failure to meet two of the seven criteria for recognition as a Native American Tribe.
Criterion 83.7(b) requires that “a predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until present.”
Meanwhile, Section 83.1 defines “Community” as “any group of people which can demonstrate that consistent interactions and significant social relationships exist within its membership and that its members are differentiated from and identified as distinct from nonmembers. Community must be understood in the context of the history, geography, culture and social organization of the group.”
In summary, the tribe failed to prove their traditions and culture are sufficiently distinct from other tribes that already have recognized status. The BIA also says that the Grand River Bands could not prove that they existed as a separate group historically, despite providing 569 membership files.
The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians have until Aug. 28 to file an objection, which seems likely.
Grand River Bands Won’t Give Up, Might Turn To Congress
Grand River Bands said they are disappointed with the BIA decision but plan to appeal. Ron Yob, the chairman of the tribe, said:
While we disagree with the US Department of the Interior’s initial findings on our petition, we are confident we can provide the additional information requested and ultimately achieve the long overdue federal recognition for our tribal members.
The tribe might turn to the US Congress for help. It tried that once before, in 2007. Carl Levin introduced a bill in the Senate, but it died before reaching the committee. However, such an approach could be an alternative to pressing the issue further with the BIA. Such tribal recognition bills rarely meet with success, but that doesn’t stop sympathetic lawmakers from trying.
About the Little River Band Casino Project
BIA’s failure to recognize Grand River Bands could remove Gov. Whitmer’s objection to the Little Rivers Band’s proposal for a second casino.
Lakeshore Casino Resort received federal approval from the Department of the Interior in 2021. The governor refused to negotiate a gaming compact due to the land dispute with the Grand River Bands. The latter claim the proposed location for Lakeshore Casino is part of their ancestral lands.
The Lakeshore Casino Resort would be in the Fruitport area, only a mile from Muskegon. The tribe estimates that it would cost $180 million. It would feature 1,700 slots, 35 table games, and a 220-room hotel.
In principle, Gov. Whitmer could sign a compact to grant her approval immediately. In practice, however, she’s unlikely to move forward while the Grand River Bands still have appeal options. That means the Muskegon County casino project is still on hold for now but looking more likely to progress in the future.