Isabella County / Metro

Tribal court hears argument to dismiss reopened disenrollment cases


If the Tribal Council of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe has their way, some 234 members who call themselves Saginaw Chippewa may be cut off from their culture and the benefits of tribal membership.

On Thursday, a hearing was held by the Tribal Court’s Office of Administrative Hearings to determine if the tribe had legal standing to reopen past cases of “disenrollment,” the proper term for kicking out members of the Tribe.

While a quarter of the 234 members facing exile are dead, the family and friends of the remaining 169 members gathered outside the courthouse to display their anger and frustrations about actions they say will take everything away from them – including their heritage.

“It’s just disgusting that they would even think of disenrolling my grandmother while she’s gone,” said Jesse Edward Helms, 43, who lives on District 1 tribal land. “She can’t even fight her own battle. She would have won.”

Out of the 169, only 24 members were allowed to attend the hearing. Paula Fisher, the lawyer representing the 234 members, was given one hour on Thursday afternoon to make her case.

Fisher argued because of a prior ruling, reopening of cases directly went against an order protecting these individuals from future disenrollments.

That order is known as Ordinance 14. Fisher also made a motion prior to the hearing which would allow all of the members to be inside the building. That motion was denied.

Fisher said her argument will likely fall on deaf ears.

The issue stems from a recent decision by the Tribal Council to reopen closed cases from 2009, which were initially thrown out by then-Chief Federico Cantu, Jr.

Cantu ruled that the cases against members slated for past disenrollment cases could not be reopened with prejudice.

Tribal leadership changes every two years, shifting political allegiances and political philosophies about who should and who should not be recognized as a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

Historically, the confusion about membership comes from a period of open enrollment in 1986 that specifically allowed members to trace their descent collaterally. Collateral descent means tracing your lineage and connection to the tribe through an uncle or great-aunt as opposed to a member’s grandfather or great-grandmother.

Lineal and collateral descent are two out of the four ways required to be called a member of the Tribe. The descent portion is based on a number of lists compiled of native people dating back to 1939.

Fulfilling the other two, a person must have at least 1/4 blood quantum, or 1/4 Native American blood, and must be able to trace back to the three original Michigan tribes: the Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River tribes.

Frank Cloutier, the public relations director for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, told Central Michigan Life last week that the Tribe is not commenting on the cases because it is treating the disenrollments as an issue of employment.

Due to the Tribe’s silence on the matter, the motivation for reopening the cases remains unknown. However, some feel it has to do with the Tribe’s decreasing revenues in the trailing wake of the national recession.

Tribe members have seen their per capita checks decrease in recent years, which acts as the sole source of income for some members of the tribe.

John Wheaton, 48, of Burt, said he believes it’s all about the money and not about maintaining bloodlines. Wheaton is facing disenrollment.

For him, the current members of the Tribal Council are changing the rules to help increase the Tribe’s bottom line.

“My civil rights are being broken,” he said. “This Tribe thinks it can do whatever they want. How is that just? They’re taking away my heritage. They’re saying that I’m not a part of this tribe. If they disenroll the people they’re trying to disenroll, it will increase their bottom dollar.”

Helms said besides the per capita checks they could receive with tribal membership, things such as housing, education and healthcare could be wiped out for those kicked out of the tribe.

At the end of the hearing, Fisher said the OAH did not issue a decision from the bench, yet she expects the decision by late Friday or sometime within the next week.

The next steps depend on what the OAH decides. If the office does grant the Tribal Council’s motion to reopen the cases, Fisher has a chance to appeal on behalf of her clients. Conversely, if the office denies the motion, the Tribal Council also has a chance to appeal, Fisher said.

Those facing disenrollment are hoping that the case is thrown out, or that the council ceases their attempts to disenroll them.

“(They’re losing) their ability to pass down their tribal membership to their children and grandchildren, to affect their Tribe and to stand proud in front of their Tribe,” said Sharon Cole, 57, of District 1 and a relative of Helms.

Echoing Helms, Christine Otto-Reed, 82, of Flint, said that if those deceased members facing enrollment were still alive, the protest outside the courthouse would have been larger and admittedly more powerful.

“(A decade) ago, we had 50 times this amount of people, but most of them (are) dead now,” Otto-Reed said. “If you could bring them back, you could put them all to shame.”

Check back with for more on this story.



  1. brenda smith says:

    We wanted to express mine and my husband ( Lawrence Smith) gratitude to Ben Solis and Taryn Wattles for this wonderful piece! It is so appreciated that you took the time to put this togeather to share this sad sad stituation that is going on right here in Mid Michigan…you give us hope that there are younger generations that are willing to take on these types of jobs today to help spread the good and bad news of our communities…again we express our THANKS to you both!

  2. Thank you Ben & Taryn for your time and the story. This news needs to be told for everyone to hear! You guys did a great job! We heard it here in Southfield Michigan ! Keep up the good work !

  3. Sandra Maclin says:

    I was very upset to hear of this trouble that has come to our door. And I want to add my voice with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, and tell the ” Tribal Council of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe that they are WRONG. That they don’t have the right to take away anyone’s Heritage. Or what belongs to them. It is just that simple. And what is done in the dark will come to the light. So to the Tribal Council I say ” DO THE RIGHT THING ” ❗️ ❗️ ❗️

  4. Sharon Cole says:

    Chii Miigwech to Ben Solis and CM Life. I appreciate the time you took to deliver a quality interview for the public to see and hear. I noticed you talking to several groups of people who were there. I appreciate also the patience and respect you two reporters had in dealing with our elders who were seated in a row on the benches inside the police/court bldg. Even when they were told they had to go outside to speak with the press, your reporting staff waited patiently. It was sad and disturbing to another group member seated next to me, to see a long line of elders, in various stages of mobility with canes and walkers and limps having to go outside to speak. Nevertheless you guys waited as they very slowly, one by one came outside to offer their input on this crisis. Thank you for the good reporting and equally the humanity, patience and professionalism you demonstrated during a very difficult time for our group. May God bless us all and best of luck to your staff in all their future endeavors. From my elder’s view, you are on the right path! Way to go!

  5. Anonymous says:

    It’s sad that this is happening, but the truth of the matter is if you’re blood quantum is not sufficient(more than one quarter) or your heritage is a bloop – just pops up on the map how can you be classified as Saginaw Chippewa Native American? Yes people may have it in their heritage, but the literal ancestral bloodline is dying. Cantu failed to address the issue and now it’s being looked back into like it needs. The worse part of this whole situation I think is the people who are like John Wheaton who tries to make a case about his heritage being taken away. He doesn’t seem like he participates in the community or connect with the culture. The only thing he could comment on being really detrimental was the fact that he would be losing his benefits, and as a result his house from loss of per cap. It actually sounds like per-capita was the only thing he was in for. Also as a side-note he lives in Burt and not the reservation, so he would be losing his house according to his own finances (it’s not the tribes fault, he should have some sort of real income) not by being evicted from tribal land. Just saying.
    I admit its not fair to not be able to be in the court to fight for your case. And I admit its not fair to elderly individuals for being disenrolled after such a long time, but there is a much wider picture to this situation. People may not have the official credentials or documentation to be identified and traced to this or surrounding tribes. This is the reality of the whole situation. There is no big man in the tribal council with a magnifying glass on top an anthill trying to burn people out just for the heck of it. There is no person that looks at every application and decides every 2nd 3rd 4th or 5th person they come across will be disenrolled. If people are being disenrolled there’s a reason; a doubt. And if it’s wrong to do so, well we didn’t make up the total governance of our tribe or were given a precedent, we were just handed tools by Uncle Sam and told to go play.

  6. Cathy L. Cory says:

    The tribal, civil, and human rights of thousands of tribal citizens are being violated through disenrollment, banishment and moratorium throughout Indian Country. This is a growing problem, and is resulting in the genocide of our Indian People by their own corrupt tribal governments. My tribe, Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians had over 1800 tribal members as of 2004. Now, there are fewer than 700 people enrolled at Picayune following mass disenrollments in 2006, with even more implemented between 2010-2014. It is way past time for intervention in this horrific problem. The United States Congress needs to use it’s plenary power to intervene, stopping this destruction and restoring those disenrolled to their People. Bring the People–ALL the People–home to their tribes!

  7. UnderstandingYURpath. says:

    Each tribal government entered into a agreement with the United States government. Each IRA tribe has a set of bylaws and a constitution. Those were created by our ancestors. There were instruction on how to join the IRA created tribe. Sad but true , some declared not to be part of and rejected to follow the conditions set forth . This does not make Natives, non native whom chose a different path. It however shows with clarity that those who chose not to participate are not entitled to the modern day tribal affiliation. As we look into history in every culture. Lineal descent IS the backbone of how ancient societies operated. With the two governing bodies joining together on a government to government relationship. Those were given a choice on how they want to govern their lives. Some chose not to be part of a reservation or the IRA. Or to engage in any other contracts with the USA. Once each individual person can see past the money and look into their ancestors past. They will see and understand their ancestors point of view.

  8. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 is a Federal Statue giving the Saginaw Chippewa their Federal Recognition. It is sad that one has to claim off a Tribe they do not belong to and this was determined by their family tree submitted with their enrollment application. There are other Tribes in Michigan they might belong to, now why waste their time trying to belong to a Tribe they do not belong to? Each application has a clause “under penalty of law…this is true…signature signed. So if one lied on their application that is committing fraud for money. Now if you lied to Family Services or Social Security, how would they deal with your fraud? The Tribe has legal procedures and land base requirements and if your ancestor was not listed, you are not a member of the Tribe. Go to another Tribe and try to do this, see how far you will get. The Tribe is only following Tribal Constitutional Law. The Tribe has a legal right to protect themselves from fraud.

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