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A History of the Chippewa and Ottawa, by One of Their Own

For more than two centuries, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians suffered under European domination. But they ultimately emerged as one of the country’s strongest indigenous nations in terms of advancing Indian sovereignty, treaty, gaming and land rights, as well as creating a model modern tribal justice system.

And now one of their members, Matthew L.M. Fletcher, has put it all down on paper.

The Eagle Returns: The Legal History of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (Michigan State University Press, 2012) is a governmental, legal and political history of the tribe. The volume focuses on their status as a treaty tribe and as the first tribe to be recognized—or, perhaps more accurately, re-recognized—by the federal government under the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s administrative recognition process.

“It is the story of survival against the arrival and savage intervention of several European nations—and the United States—in the affairs and property of the Anishinaabek of the Grand Traverse Bay region,” Fletcher writes in his introduction. Professor of law and director of the Indigenous Law & Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law, Fletcher also runs Turtle Talk, the Indigenous Law & Policy Center’s legal blog and an unrivaled source of court documents pertaining to Indian casework and law.

In The Eagle Returns, Fletcher takes on the guise of storyteller, and that role is reflected in the chapter headings: “The Story of the 1836 Treaty of Washington,” “The Story of the 1855 Treaty of Detroit” and “The Story of the Dispossession of the Grand Traverse Band Land Base” are just some of the entries.

Although the chapter titles are specific to the Grand Traverse Band, in a more general sense they could serve as a template for any number of indigenous nations. The book is a reminder that so many of them have followed the same post-European settlement trajectory of cultural and economic erosion, genocide, dispossession and poverty, up to the brink of legal extinction—only to survive through resilience and resourcefulness to emerge strong and prosperous in the latter part of the 20th century.

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The Eagle Returns is not just a legal history. It is also filled with details about the material lives of the pre-treaty Anishinaabek peoples. At one point Fletcher writes deftly of their renowned birchbark canoes: They were “the finest canoes in the northern hemisphere, capable of carrying over a ton of people and equipment for two-year treks, creating an ability to travel over all of the Great Lakes and their major tributaries.”

Other compelling passages detail episodes like the negotiations between the Anishinaabek leaders, who were called ogemuk, and Henry Schoolcraft, the Indian Commissioner for the United States and “an ardent land speculator prone to fits of deep ethnocentrism.” On March 28, 1836, Schoolcraft signed off on the Treaty of Washington, whereby the tribes ceded an area of 13,837,207 acres—more than one-third of Michigan’s land area. The treaty provided for permanent reservations and prohibited the ethnic cleansing of Michigan Indians. But within months the Senate rewrote it to limit the reservations to five years and provide an option to remove Indian communities to the south and west.

“The Senate added the carrot of $200,000 to the bands that chose to remove to these lands in exchange for their reservations lands,” Fletcher writes. The president agreed to the amended treaty on May 27, 1836, but the Anishinaabek were not notified of the changes until July.

Still other chapters detail the further dispossession of the Grand Traverse Band and its “administrative termination” beginning in the 1870s. The story brightens with the band’s re--recognition on May 27, 1980; its famous victorious battle for treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on public lands; its successful gaming enter-prises; and the modernization of the tribe’s ancient law and justice systems.

Fletcher says that he intends The Eagle Returns to serve as a reference for policymakers, lawyers and Indian people and for an educated general audience. But for the author, the book is also a considerable labor of love.

“It is written for the people of the Grand Traverse Band,” writes the author, “who have not had the benefit of drawing upon one source for the bulk of their legal and political history.”