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Judge rejects attempt to throw out Little Traverse Bay Bands' land case


A federal judge has rejected the latest attempt to throw out a case filed by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians against the state of Michigan. The case is over whether the tribe has jurisdiction on 337 square miles of land in northern Michigan.

The land stretches along the shore of Lake Michigan and includes the city of Petoskey and part of Charlevoix.

The tribe is not claiming it owns the land, but rather that the land is a reservation. And that reservation status means the tribe has the right to operate as a government entity to decide what happens on the land.

But the cities of Petoskey and Charlevoix, along with the counties in the area, argued the tribe relinquished that claim years ago, and failed to raise the issue with the Indian Claims Commission set up in 1946. The Commission was created by an act of Congress to settle once and for all, the many land claims by Indigenous nations against the federal government.

Land that Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians says is a reservation in northern Michigan.
Credit Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians

Jessica Intermill, an attorney that represents the tribe in the current case, argued in December that the Little Traverse Bay Bands’ claim wasn’t against the federal government. It’s against the state. So, she said, the Indian Claims Commission had nothing to do with the case.

“It’s not even a case of apples and oranges,” Intermill argued. “It’s essentially a case of apples and chickens.”

On Thursday, the judge in the case agreed.

"[T]he Tribe alleges that its cause of action arises from current violations of its treaty rights by the State in which it is located, which could not have been brought before the ICC because they had not yet occurred,” judge Paul Maloney wrote.

While Maloney sided with the Little Traverse Bay Bands on that issue, he also wrote a separate order rejecting the tribe’s request on another claim.

The Tribe had requested a ruling that would have blocked a future line of argument from the state of Michigan and the local governments up north that have joined the case. Judge Maloney wrote that he’s not ready to block those arguments, even though the Tribe may ultimately prevail in them.

“The court has been presented with a hypothetical question that, at some point, may require resolution,” Maloney wrote, before concluding that there’s a much bigger question to answer first. That question: “whether a reservation was set aside for the Tribe’s use by the Treaty of 1855.”

The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, of course, argues that it was. But it’ll have to prove that claim in the next round of arguments, which are expected to take place in the coming months.

The case has already been going on for more than three years.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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