Learning about Michigan Tribal communities – Part 1

Michigan has long been the home of several Native American tribes. Learn about their history and the basics of the self-governing natures.

Michigan has a long history of habitation by the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi tribes, collectively known as the “Anishnaabek.” The Anishnaabek have called Michigan home centuries before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. All three tribes share common cultural practices and an oral language which is called Anishinaabemowin. Each tribe share common community roots and ties to the land. The tribes have their own unique structure of government, formal acknowledgement of land used by families and villages, as well as political identities that varied from village to village.

As stated in “A Brief History of Michigan Indians” by Charles E. Cleland, “The Ojibwa were the Elder Brother, the Ottawa the Next Older Brother, and the Potawatomi the Younger Brother.” They all worked together to form a common defense against European settlers and various tribes vying to control Michigan’s vast natural resources. Michigan derived its name from the Indian word "Gitchi-Gami" which means "Great, immense lake." Four of the five Great Lakes, the largest lakes in the United States, border Michigan. Even before Michigan became a state on January 26, 1837 the coastline of Michigan’s shores was home to dozens of large, Anishnaabek villages, which predate European arrival by thousands of years.

In Michigan there are twelve federally recognized tribes and two tribes seeking federal recognition that are located throughout the Lower and Upper Peninsulas. The vast majority of these tribes today are located near the water which has also been historically, culturally and economically important for the Anishnaabek for many generations. Each of the Tribes is considered a Sovereign Nations which means they are autonomous in nature with the ability to self-govern.

The right to self-govern was prevalent in Anishnaabek communities before European and American contact. Contemporary tribes self-govern within the United States by means of legal agreements with the federal government; these agreements are treaties. Self-governing comes in the form of tribal schools, police, conservation officers, housing, economic enterprises and maintaining a tribal government, that usually consists of a tribal chairman and tribal council. Most tribes also have their own judicial system where tribal citizens are able to secure personal rights guaranteed by tribal law, federal law and the tribal constitution through a traditional dispute resolution method and a fair, just and impartial system.

When working with Tribal communities it is important to remember that each Tribe has created and implemented their own Constitution, policies and procedures which are to be followed once you enter the reservation.

Please watch for the second part of Learning about Michigan Tribal Communities.

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