2016-10-06 / Front Page

Tribal Chairman speaks on upbringing, his election success and background as pastor

Served in Vietnam
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff


THURLOW “SAM” MCCLELLAN is Tribal Chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. THURLOW “SAM” MCCLELLAN is Tribal Chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Thurlow “Sam” McClellan has been a busy man since being elected in May as Tribal Chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (the GTB).

Last week, McClellan returned to Peshawbestown from his second trip to Washington, D.C. since taking office. He was representing the GTB at a National Tribal Conference as one of more than 500 tribal leaders from across the U.S.

McClellan sat down with an Enterprise reporter to provide an extensive interview.

“Even though each of the tribes is unique and many are sovereign nations like we are, all of us are concerned with whether the U.S. lives up to its treaty obligations — and want to make sure it does,” McClellan said.

President Barack Obama addressed the tribal leaders at last week’s conference, McClellan said. But the GTB chairman missed an opportunity to approach Obama personally because of the size of the crowd.


AT WORK in his Peshawbestown office, Tribal Chairman Thurlow “Sam” McClellan has made two visits to Washington, D.C. since being elected to chair the Tribal Council in May. AT WORK in his Peshawbestown office, Tribal Chairman Thurlow “Sam” McClellan has made two visits to Washington, D.C. since being elected to chair the Tribal Council in May. “This was mostly a good opportunity for me and the other tribal leaders to network together and discuss a lot of issues we have in common,” McClellan said.

Last month, McClellan also traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with northern Michigan’s congressional delegation consisting of Congressman Dan Benishek and U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.

McClellan said he accompanied Grand Traverse County administrator Tom Menzel and representatives of several local veteran’s groups to the nation’s capital to lobby legislators about plans for a new Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facility in Traverse City.

The tribal chair is himself an Army veteran of the Vietnam War. Like many veterans, he is sometimes required to travel to the VA Hospital in Saginaw for treatment of a service-connected disability. McClellan contracted malaria while in Vietnam and was also exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange.

Growing up in Charlevoix

McClellan, 66, was born in Petoskey but raised by his natural parents in Charlevoix in what he described as a “good Christian home in a white community.” His parents were members of the Foursquare Indian Church, but McClellan would later become deeply involved in the Pentecostal Church of God.

A 1968 graduate of Charlevoix High School, he worked in a Charlevoix machine shop until 1970 when his draft number came up and he was inducted into the U.S. Army. He served in the Army a total of 14 months, with most of that time spent in Vietnam where he first served as an infantryman, then as a military policeman. He received an honorable discharge in December 1971.

McClellan was then accepted into a Consumers Power job training program that he said was actively seeking minorities and military veterans. After he completed training in Grand Rapids in 1972, the utility company moved him to Grand Haven where he met his wife, Joyce.

Sam and Joyce McClellan have been married for 43 years now and have seven children, two of them adopted: six girls and one boy. Five of their children continue to live in northwestern lower Michigan and are employed by the GTB. They have 13 grandchildren.

McClellan spent nine of his 15-plus years with Consumers Energy in his hometown of Charlevoix, working at the nuclear power plant there. He also worked three years for Consumers in the Gaylord area where his commitment to service with the Pentecostal Church of God grew even deeper.

Accepts calling to pastor church

He and his wife were involved in teaching Sunday school and doing other church work in the Gaylord area as well as in the Charlevoix and Boyne City areas.

When the pastor of the Pentecostal Church of God in Alba decided to move on, McClellan’s long track record of faith and service to the church along with a strong recommendation from a Pentecostal pastor in Charlevoix landed him a position as pastor of the Alba church.

“When they were considering putting me in that position, I told them what my priorities would be,” McClellan said. “I always put God first, my wife second, my children third, and the church fourth — and that seemed to be just fine with them.”

McClellan served as pastor of the Pentecostal Church of God in Alba for 17 years and still considers himself a member of the clergy.

In the meantime, his wife landed a job 21 years ago as head of the GTB’s Head Start program, now based at the tribe’s Benodjehn Center in Peshawbestown. She is still in that position.

“Early on, my wife hired me as the center’s bus driver and cook – and that was how I first came to be employed by the tribe,” McClellan said. He later expanded his involvement with the tribe by becoming a school liaison in the tribe’s Education Department.

But the 68-mile commute from Alba was becoming too much to bear, so in 2001 he and Joyce moved to Traverse City.

The rise to Tribal chair

Both of them had begun spending even more time in Peshawbestown. In 2000, McClellan won a four-year seat on the Tribal Council, but lost his reelection bid in 2004. He subsequently went back to work as a bus driver in Alba, but in 2006 landed a job with the tribe’s Natural Resources Department in Peshawbestown. He worked in that job for eight years and retired about a year and a half ago, he said.

“I would always drive by the tribal government building here in Peshawbestown and say, ‘There’s my office — the Tribal Chairman’s office,’” McClellan said.

In 2016 he threw his hat in the ring and came out as one of the top two candidates in a 7-way race for the Tribal Chairman’s seat. The former vice chairman of the Tribal Council, Joanne Cook, had been serving as interim chairman after the elected chairman, Alvin Pedwaydon, was forced to step down due to health concerns. Cook beat all of the other candidates including McClellan by a substantial margin in the primary.

“I think a lot of people were surprised that I came out on top in the general election in May – but I wasn’t surprised,” McClellan said.

He said that strong ties with a wider base of fellow tribal members residing in Charlevoix and Antrim counties likely played a role in his upset of Cook in the May 2016 election.

The Tribal Chairman also serves as chairman of the board of the tribe’s Economic Development Corporation which, through the Leelanau Sands Casino and other enterprises in Peshawbestown is the largest single employer in Leelanau County. The government and economic development budgets the Tribal Council controls are believed to be at least 10 times larger than the $13 million annual budget controlled by the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners, for example.

The GTB is the second-largest employer in the entire Grand Traverse region, just behind Munson Medical Center, McClellan said.

McClellan said he sees no conflict between his strong Christian faith and the promotion of gambling.

“Staying away from gambling isn’t what gets you to heaven,” McClellan said. “Only the blood of Christ can do that.”

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