For the first time in the tribe’s history, the Bay Mills Indian Community will have a tribal council made up entirely of women.
“For me, I really see that as the progress of our tribal nation moving forward in healing from prior colonization, that we have suffered from. A lot of our traditional structures that have matriarchal forms of government, matriarchal leadership, that were involved and kept a balance within our community,” said newly-elected chairwoman Whitney Gravelle.
Gravelle comes to the position at a critical moment for the tribe. The council is tasked with helping the tribe tackle some of its biggest challenges, including responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and a legal fight over the Line 5 pipelines that run through the Straits of Mackinac.
Currently, the Bay Mills Indian community is faced with an uptick in COVID-19 cases— which mirrors the state’s recent spike in cases. Gravelle says that the increase in cases is affecting the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. Like other communities, they are observing COVID-19 clusters linked to school events.
“So, we've been trying to mitigate that spread ourselves; partnering with local authorities and communities and local school boards on how we can best assist them so that we're protecting those children and then preventing that spread throughout our communities as children bring it back to their homes,” she said.
Before she was elected chairwoman in March, Gravelle was a tribal attorney for Bay Mills, but she says her new position gives her new opportunities to help strengthen her community. In her role as chair, she’ll have a hand in issues like cultural revitalization, language programs, land acquisition, among other tribal priorities.
Another top priority for Gravelle is the closure of Enbridge’s Line 5 pipelines, which run through the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge has plans to build a tunnel, which would house replacements for the section of Line 5 that runs through the Straits. But Gravelle says that her tribe wants the company to remove pipelines from the water entirely. And she considers her work on the negotiations over Line 5 as some of the most important work she’s done during her legal career.
“Because it is directly tied to our treaty rights, which are something that we hold sacred, and that we deem necessary in order to continue and sustain our way of life,” she said.
Last November, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel revoked the initial 1953 easement that Enbridge received to build Line 5. The treaty rights of Michigan’s tribal nations were cited as one of the reasons for that revocation.
“The Straits of Mackinac have been the centerpiece of trade, travel, history, and culture for thousands of years in the Great Lakes, It is not only the resources of tribal nations that we are trying to protect, but also the historical and archeological artifacts of everyone else as well,” Gravelle said.
Stateside reached out to Enbridge Energy for a statement on their plans for a Line 5 tunnel and the interests of the Bay Mills tribe. They replied, in part:
“Enbridge is committed to protecting cultural and archaeologically significant features in the Straits as we advance the Great Lakes Tunnel Project.
As part of on-going cultural surveys in the area of the Straits of Mackinac, our desire is to work with area tribal communities and their tribal Historic Preservation Offices to identify sensitive cultural sites and artifacts and together plan for their protection.”
You can find their full statement here.
Editor's note: Enbridge Energy is a corporate sponsor of Michigan Radio
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.