Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe members protest pending disenrollment cases


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Lisa Kennedy has an identity crisis and not one of her own making. Soon, the 43-year-old Mount Pleasant woman who proudly calls herself Saginaw Chippewa Indian could have her heritage and sense of culture taken away from her by her own tribe.

"This isn't just a membership issue or an employment issue," Kennedy said. "This is an issue of human rights."

Standing on the corner of Broadway and Leaton roads on a dreary Saturday afternoon, Kennedy and 50 others protested the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribal Council's decision to reopen a slew of previously thrown out disenrollment cases against 234 members of the Tribe.

Amassed outside the Tribal Operations building, the protest was a symbolic vent of frustration against the Tribal Council, especially as one of the Tribe's traditional Powwow events was being held at the same time just down Leaton Road.

The location was symbolic as well: The intersection not only houses the Tribal Operations building, but also the Tribal Court, Tribal Police headquarters and the Soaring Eagle Casino.

To their critics and the Tribal Council, the members facing disenrollment don't have the proper documentation to prove their membership with the Tribe. Many of those facing disenrollment trace their descent collaterally to aunts and uncles as opposed to lineal descent to grandparents.

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For the Tribal Council, this form of tracing ancestry doesn't prove they were members of the Tribe.

Perpetuating the bad blood, a large portion of their critics believe the disenrollees are only concerned about the per-capita money and benefits they stand to lose with their membership.

This last point of contention has further angered the members of the Tribe who could be disenrolled.

Facing expulsion from the culture she was raised with, Kennedy told Central Michigan Life the Tribal Council's push to disenroll members – some of whom are deceased – disrespects the ancestors that helped make the Tribe what is today.

"I want them to know that I belong, and that I was here before the money," she said. "(The Tribal Council) needs to know that our ancestors are watching them."

Carrying signs, flags and other instruments of historical nostalgia, the protestors chanted phrases like "red until we're dead," or "Indian disenrollment is Indian termination."

Some members carried signs likening the cases to genocide. Others insinuated that the cases could kill some well-established elders in the process.

"It kills elders because many of them rely on the healthcare provided by the Tribe," said Harold Gould, a 74-year-old member facing expulsion. "Their physical condition is serious, and this could seriously jeopardize their health. Whether it's children or elders affected by the disenrollments, the Tribal Council is taking a cold attitude toward them."

For Gould, his membership with the Tribe should come without question. Gould said he traces his ancestry back to a Chief Pamquan, who Gold claims was one of the original signers of the 1854 Treaty with the Chippewa tribe.

As traffic became more congested, cars honked their horns in support of the protest. Saginaw Chippewa Indian police vehicles drove through the parking lot to observe protesters.

The protest was shut down around 12:30 p.m., an hour after it began.

The moment was a dividing line in a political rift that has engulfed the the Tribe for more than 20 years, Kennedy said. Although they have been vocal about their pending disenfranchisement, Kennedy doesn't believe the protest will do much good to stop future disenrollments.

A group protested outside of the Tribal Court building on July 10 as the Office of Administrative Hearings heard arguments against allowing the Tribe to reopen the cases. Ultimately, the OAH chose to grant the Tribal Council permission to move forward with the cases.

With opposition mounting against those disenrollees choosing to speak out,  Gould said the continued drive for awareness on the issue is key to stopping future cases.

"This protest is meant to mobilize the tribal base," he said. "This isn't just for the 230 facing disenrollment. That's just the first group. Every one of (the members of the tribe) is in danger if they don't bring this rogue council in."

Every two years, the Tribal Council membership switches hands through a process of election. Gould said a few members of the current council ran on the premise of reopening the disenrollment cases thrown out in 2009.

Frank Cloutier, the spokesman for the Tribe, said that he could not speak about the cases because the tribal leadership views them as issues of employment.

Check back with cm-life.com for more on this story.

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