June 27, 2022

State of the Odawa

Sept. 23, 2016

It took centuries for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians to become recognized as an Indian tribe by the United States. In the intervening years, that status has transformed their lives.

A timeline of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians’ history, as chronicled on the bands’ website, begins in the 1600s, when the ancestors of the people who would make up the modern tribe first settled in northern lower Michigan. It ends in the late 1990s, when the tribe gained federal recognition as an American Indian tribe and opened the Odawa Casino Resort in Petoskey.

The timeline hasn’t been updated since — perhaps because there’s been way too much going on.

“The standard of living has dramatically increased,” said Wesley Andrews, the Odawa historic preservation officer. “To me, the quality of life for individual people has dramatically improved. That’s the biggest thing that I see, and I am happy for people.”

The turning point for the band, according to Andrews, was its official recognition by the federal government.

“Most tribal members, before 20 years ago, when we got our federal status, had to work several jobs every year, because you didn’t have full-time employment with benefits,” Andrews said. “Healthcare has been a major part of it, too. I see a lot of people in better health and with less of the physical problems, the psychological problems that came with poverty. And [I see] people even taking vacations. Going somewhere and doing something.”


Rachel Change Snyder has come because federal recognition Photo enabled by Michael LTBB Poehlman to Photography earn money through their casino, to assert hunting and fishing treaty rights, and to establish a sovereign government that focuses on bettering the lives of its members.

In a short time, LTBB’s government has developed into a bureaucracy resembling a miniature state. The tribe runs its own police force and courts; has housing, health and education departments; offers elder services, food and energy assistance; and maintains an archive of the tribe’s history that’s collected so much material, a large expansion is underway.

Amid all of that change, a lot of focus has been put on maintaining traditional culture in the face of the modern world.

For example, tradition requires a ceremonial fire to burn for four days when a tribe member “walks on,” or passes away. Because some families would find it challenging to set aside so much time to man a fire, let alone secure a place to safely have the fire, the band erected a fire keeper’s lodge a short walk away from the administration building on the band’s government campus outside of Harbor Springs. There, a large fire pit is tucked under a pavilion roof that boasts a small opening, allowing smoke to rise to the sky. While a family mourns, fire keepers stay up in the lodge around the clock to tend to the fire honoring the lost tribal member.

“If you live in an apartment building, it’s really hard to light a ceremonial fire,” said Rebecca Fisher, LTTB executive assistant.


One of the first government departments created after the tribe gained federal status in 1994 was the Little Traverse Bay Bands’ Natural Resources Department, established in 1996.

Doug Craven, LTTB natural resource director since 2002, said the department today employs 25 full-time and 30 seasonal employees.

The department was created amid a battle with the state over fishing and hunting rights in the 1980s and 1990s, but today the LTTB NRD works hand-in-hand on a lot of projects with its one-time foe, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“That was one of the key drivers for our tribe seeking reaffirmation, the exercise of treaty rights,” Craven said. “That’s always been an important component of our community, of our cultural identity, of what it means to be Odawa. … Hunting, fishing, gathering, basket-making — those are all core components of what it means to be Odawa.”

A Great Lakes Consent Decree, an agreement that governs allocation, management, and regulation of state and tribal fisheries in the Great Lakes, was reached in 2000. The Inland Consent Decree, which established the terms of tribal members’ inland hunting and fishing rights, was resolved in 2007.

Since those settlements were negotiated, the tribe slowly has been able to find common ground with the state.

Craven said each side has come to realize they share a lot of the same goals — like ensuring the survival of fish species that are disappearing from the Great Lakes due to an onslaught of invasive species.

“We have biologists that are working for us now, and ones that are working for the state, that come out of the same universities,” Craven said. “They come out of the same classes, you know? They know each other, so they have this working rapport — while prior to 2000, and maybe even prior to 2007, we didn’t necessarily have that.”


At the Odawa Fish Enhancement Facility near Pellston, researchers are learning how to bolster Lake Michigan’s cisco (lake herring) population and Burt Lake’s sturgeon population.

“It actually provides a lot of benefit, not only to tribal members, but to the non-tribal community as well,” Craven said. “This is our third year now where we’ve stocked up around 50,000 cisco into Little Traverse Bay this year. We are really trying to advance the ball on cisco restoration.”

Cisco is like whitefish but a bit smaller. The population collapsed in Lake Michigan in the 1980s, but Craven said exactly what caused the collapse is unknown — that’s what researchers are trying to figure out.

The facility also researches and restocks sturgeon, a threatened species in Michigan. This year the Odawa Fish Enhancement team stocked 225 of the fish into the Sturgeon River, which feeds into Burt Lake.

“Sturgeon is one of those great examples where we’ve been able to work cooperatively with the state of Michigan in developing a management plan for Burt Lake and in the waterway itself,” Craven said.

The tribe also has developed an innovative program to get sturgeon into schools.

Students in Pellston, Harbor Springs, Petoskey and Alanson will raise the fish in classrooms this year.

The LTBB NRD worked with the tribe’s education department to create a curriculum around the sturgeon project that includes math, science, and Odawa cultural lessons.

“They’ve really taken all of the heavy lifting out of the equation and put together a nice package that you can present to a school that [teachers] can easily implement,” Craven said. “It’s not simply a field trip or a coloring book or that type of thing, but it really works on some outside-the-box thinking, some advanced math skills, some critical thinking.”

Each class will raise one sturgeon, and four more will be raised as backups at the enhancement facility, so that toward the end of the school year there should be four to eight fish ready to be released.


Tribal Chairwoman Regina Gasco Bentley oversees a group that has taken some progressive steps in recent years, not the least of which was electing a woman to serve as tribal chair.

Bentley has served for over a decade on the tribal council, and she’s been the tribal chair since 2014, when the previous tribal chairman lost his seat in a recall election.

The LTBB tribe was the first in Michigan, and among the first in the country, to adopt the Violence Against Women Act to address domestic violence. It was also one of the first American Indian tribes in the country to protect the right of same-sex marriage.

Bentley agrees that these were bold moves, but she said she doesn’t believe LTTB are all that different from other tribes.

“I’m sure we are advanced in some ways, but I still see all of our tribes as equals. We all have our laws, and we all form things in different ways,” she said. “Passing the same-sex marriage was big, but it was long overdue. We have always respected the two-spirited people of our tribe, so the council at the time thought it was time to enact the law.”

Another area where LTTB has taken a leading role is in energy use.

The tribe has adopted the goal that its government and casino should meet the Kyoto Protocol energy-use standards to combat climate change. They hope to achieve that through energy conservation and renewable energy.

“It’s an ambitious goal, yes, absolutely,” Craven said. “Obviously we’d like to get as close to that as we can, but there are hurdles that we’re running up against. Cost is one of the issues there. And then just the viability of some of these technologies.”

Already the casino has transitioned to LED lights and implemented major system changes to reduce its energy consumption and carbon footprint, Craven said, but the tribe has its eyes on even bigger efforts.

It has reached an agreement with its utility, Great Lakes Energy, enabling it to sell surplus energy back to the utility, and it plans to install solar panels at the government center next. Also on the agenda: Running the Odawa Fish Enhancement Facility — one of the tribe’s hungriest energy consumers — with as much renewable energy as is feasible.


In a generation, LTTB members have gone from impoverished outcasts who suffered from prejudice and racism to earning status as formidable members of society.

Bentley believes there is still plenty of racism and more progress needs to be made, but she said things have gotten a lot better.

“Racism is still there. There are a lot of non-tribal people that don’t understand our culture, and they still see us as stereotypes. They don’t understand that we’re still here, we’ve always been here,” she said. “We’re not held back by the stereotypes. Overcoming historical trauma is hard, but we just keep moving forward, and we show the people that we’re still here; our culture is still alive.”

Racism recedes, she said, when people learn the history of American Indian people and see who the tribal members are today. Tremendous strides have been made; not long ago, tribal members were forbidden to speak their language in school. Today, Anishinaabemowin is taught in public schools in both Petoskey and Harbor Springs.

Craven cites the younger generation’s experience as proof that racism against American Indians is no longer as prevalent as it once was Up North.

“My kids go to school in the area — I have four boys right now — and I think they’re accepted in their community,” he said. “You get to the kids that are their age, they don’t know any different. So my kids have tribal names, and they’re definitely tribal-looking individuals, but I don’t feel that they’re being mistreated by their peers because of who they are.”

Craven sees the conflict at one of its sources — resentment over hunting and fishing treaty rights — and he said part of his job is to educate non-natives about why American Indians have different rights and how tribal members are committed to preserving natural resources.

Andrews said that casinos have not only enriched American Indian tribes, they’ve also reminded non-natives of the tribes’ existence.

“I can remember when telling a non-native person that you’re native was sometimes met with denial,” Andrews said. “‘Well, you can’t be Indian. We killed all of them.’ That’s how much the identity of native people, not only around here, but also in other places in the country (was diminished).”

Andrews said that, today, tribal members have to consider how their new-found status could cause trouble.

“The tribe needs to be able to live more in cooperation with other people, and that’s going take some time and some skill to do that — as a group as well as individuals. Because of our political and legal status now, that changes the way in which we are viewed,” he said. “We were received as a non-threat to the area, pitied or even disparaged because of our status previously. Now there’s fear.”


Like with hunting and fishing rights, repatriation of American Indian remains and artifacts is another source of conflict between natives and non-natives.

Andrews is at the center of that. He often calls upon two federal acts designed to preserve and protect American Indian culture because he’s the person who gets called when an American Indian burial site is unearthed. He also reviews construction applications for projects located on federal land within a mile of places where the LTTB have historic use or occupancy. He also negotiates with museums and universities over the return of artifacts that were taken from the tribe.

In 45 years of this work, Andrews has helped recover remains and artifacts of unquantifiable significance to the tribe.

Almost everything that is unearthed and returned is reburied under the strict tenants of tribal tradition, he said. There has been talk of the tribe starting its own museum, but Andrews said that would go against the tribe’s tradition of honoring the past by treating things that are put into the ground the same way as the people who originally put them there.

Andrews said the tribe isn’t trying to make trouble for people, it is merely trying to correct historical wrongs.

Take, for example, when construction workers find American Indian remains. There have been cases in recent years where the crews, afraid of delays and added expenses, have attempted to hide the remains rather than turn them over to the tribe.

“I hear about it all the time. There are human remains found, some old graves and stuff like this, and they hide it. Because they think that getting ahold of the tribe, it’s going to slow the project down, and it’s going to create all this problem,” Andrews said. “But I try to educate people. I talk to all these different contractors and things — it’s not a problem. We can come in, and we can take these out. We have the capability to come in, and we can take all of those bodies out of there on private land. I’ve done it before. I’ve done it a lot.”


For the past year, LTTB and the State of Michigan have been tangled in a dispute in federal court.

The tribe wants its reservation boundaries — which, as spelled out in the 1855 Treaty of Detroit, include most of Emmet County and the northern part of Charlevoix County — officially recognized so that it can exercise jurisdiction in that area.

However, the suit has stirred fear among non-native neighbors who worry what tribal jurisdiction would mean.

According to a memo produced by members of a local lake association, some believe a victory for the tribe could threaten private property and exempt tribal members from the restrictions of local zoning.

Bentley said those fears are unwarranted. “It’s not to take people’s property or to take people’s homes or anything like that. It’s just for them to recognize that we have jurisdiction over our own people within our reservation boundaries,” she said. “I think some people are getting misinformed. All we’re doing is asking the state government to recognize that we do have a reservation here. This is our reservation boundaries as set out by the Treaty of 1855.”

She said the result of the suit should spell out how the tribe and local governments can work together.

“We share this land together. We live on it. We’re going to have to get along,” she said.

“We have a great working relationship with all the other governments, and we’re here to stay. We’re a tribe. We want to take care of our own citizens and live within the lands that the government set out for us.”


• Number of tribal members who live on the reservation: 3765

• Number who live off: 789

• Number of people employed by LTBB government: 284

• Number of people employed by Odawa casinos: 533

• LTBB annual government budget: approx. $30 million

• Amount passed on to local governments in most recent two percent funding: $543,503


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