2013-09-26 / Front Page

GTB claims could reach $300 million

By Alan Campbell of the Enterprise staff

The Grand Traverse Band has found support in Congress for its efforts to be repaid up to hundreds of millions of dollars for lands it claims were taken illegally by white settlers and land speculators in the 1800s.

Estimates of the value of the claims vary between $10 million and $300 million, Leelanau County officials were told at a meeting sought nearly two weeks ago by the Tribal Council of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The property in question was offered by the federal government to Indians through an 1855 treaty. It extends roughly from Dumas Road in Suttons Bay Township to Crane Hill Road in Elmwood Township, and westward to Lake Michigan, according to Tribal attorney John Petoskey.

He explained that the Tribe was not seeking to cloud title on privately held properties that were improperly taken from Native Americans. Instead, the Tribe is seeking a monetary payout from the federal government through the Court of Federal Appeals.

The first step in that process requires the federal government to give up immunity, which requires an act of Congress. U.S. Cong. Dan Benishek, who has a seat on the Congressional Natural Resources Committee, has introduced such a bill.

Should the bill pass in the House and Senate — where Petoskey said Michigan senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenaw have shown support — and be signed into law, the Tribe can advance its case to the Court of Federal Claims.

Should the federal claims court rule with the Tribe, it would suggest a monetary payout to rectify the claim that in turn would have to win Congressional approval.

Kyle Bonini, press secretary for Cong. Benishek, said Benishek introduced the bill as a “constituent service” after being requested by GTB leaders to advance their cause. Bonini explained, “To be clear, this bill does not provide funds to the GTB. It simply allows them to bring their case to the Court of Federal Claims ... it’s a bill of reference.”

“Cong. Benishek was open to our arguments ... he is in favor of this,” said Petoskey. “This is a question of property rights.”

Petoskey added that Tribal leaders have held meetings with several highranking federal officials.

“It’s not like we have not, if you will, touched all the bases on the House and Senate. We have. This is something we have been working on,” Petoskey added.

Case filings will go well beyond the theories of property law, as the GTB legal team has been poring over deed titles for several years to chronicle how lands reserved as a permanent homeland for Indians in the Treaty of 1855 were transferred into the names of settlers and lumber speculators. The GTB claim tracks the transfer of individual tracts reserved for Tribal members, Petoskey said.

In all, some 87,000 acres was reserved for the predecessors of the GTB, mostly in Leelanau County. Some property in Antrim County was included.

The Treaty offered 80 acres to each adult Tribal member with a family, and 40 acres to each Tribal member over 21 without a family, Petoskey said. The federal government was required to hold the properties for five years after the allotment process.

But white settlers claimed about 25,000 acres of reservation property through the Homestead Act, and refused to move, he said. Another 15,000 acres was bought in cash from Indians by landmen working for lumber companies — lands that the federal government had agreed to hold in abeyance, Petoskey said.

The Tribe and Department of Interior entered into another treaty in 1872 that acknowledged the federal government’s failure to enforce the 1855 Treaty. The second treaty legitimized the claims of white settlers living on what was deemed reservation property, and forced Indians seeking to claim their lands to file new claims under the Homestead Act.

Petoskey and the Tribe maintain that the Treaty of 1872 violated the Constitutional rights of Native Americans.

Petoskey did not want to state a dollar figure for the amount sought by the GTB, but said the total was roughly based on 40,000 acres taken wrongfully from Indians by speculators and homesteaders at a value of $10 per acre. The total balloons when interest is applied.

Leelanau County administrator Chet Janik said estimates provided county officials at their meeting in Peshawbestown on Sept. 13 varied between $10 million and $300 million. He attended the meeting with County Board chair Tom VanPelt and vicechair Melinda Lautner.

“They wanted us to know what they were doing,” recalled VanPelt, “because they were certain we would be deluged by questions from constituents worried they would be trying to take their land. They wanted us to know they were looking for money, and not the land.”

He added, “It was quite extensive research they’d done.”

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