A northern Michigan Indigenous tribe hosted its own political town hall in preparation for the upcoming elections.
The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians invited Michigan candidates at the U.S., state and local levels to discuss environmental issues in a moderated forum last Friday evening in Peshawbestown.
Desmond Berry, the director of the tribe's Natural Resources Department, says the Grand Traverse Band feels this is a very important election and wanted to become more involved.
"[We] wanted to engage these candidates so they could hear our concerns," he says. "Everybody has a stake in Michigan's fresh water and our mother earth and the environment. This town hall is focused on those issues, because tribes are the original caretakers of mother earth."
Sierra Nadeau is a student at Western Michigan University and a descendant of the Grand Traverse Band. She says it’s important for political candidates to do a better job of engaging with tribal citizens.
"I feel that the Indigenous community is left out in a lot of politics, especially in regards to environmental issues. We've been here for hundreds of years, and we're never really involved in any sort of the debate or consideration when they talk about these things."
Democratic candidates at all levels attended and answered audience questions about oil pipelines, climate change and environmental justice. The forum was preceded by an informal social hour, where attendees could chat casually with candidates while local musician Seth Bernard provided ambience.
There were no Republicans present, although they were invited along with their counterparts.
Big-name democrats like U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, and attorney general candidate Dana Nessel couldn't make it, but each sent a specially recorded video for the event. The videos all focused on tribal engagement and clean water. Nessel had Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers attend and speak on her behalf.
Gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette and attorney general candidate Tom Leonard did not respond to invitations to participate. U.S. Senate candidate John James declined his invitation.
Matt Morgan, a Democrat running to represent Michigan’s 1st congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives, attended the event. He says clean water should be a principle voting issue.
“This is really about clean water, so issues like Line 5, PFAS contamination, overall the future of our waters and the Great Lakes compact and preventing Nestle from continuing to steal the groundwater," says Morgan. "I think it's really important that we're looking at water as one comprehensive issue, and [it] should be one of the most principle voting issues for anyone in Michigan.”
Morgan's competitor, incumbent Republican Jack Bergman, did not respond to multiple invitations to participate.
There are 12 federally recognized tribes in the State of Michigan.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story said Sierra Nadeau was a citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa. That is incorrect -- she is actually a descendant. The story has been corrected above.