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Grand Traverse ancestral land in conflict

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LELAND, Mich. - An American Indian tribe is frustrated over a proposed public-private land swap on a remote Lake Michigan island and their complaints are ignored.

The state of Michigan owns about one-third of 3,400-acre South Fox Island with ecological features that include rare sand dunes and habitat for endangered plant and bird species. Private landowner David Johnson, a Detroit-area developer best known for building a billion-dollar luxury resort on reclaimed industrial property south of Petoskey, owns the remaining two-thirds.

The controversial swap would consolidate the present patchwork ownership pattern, giving Johnson a central chunk of South Fox.

To complicate the matter, the BIA in 1983 identified at least 250 acres as belonging to members of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Some of those claims are among the parcels that would be exchanged.

However, despite a nearly year-long debate over the swap, for which a federal Environmental Impact Statement is being prepared, the claims issue has been ignored, say tribal members and staff.

"It's as if everything we've been saying about the land claims is falling on deaf ears. There ought not to be any consideration by the federal agencies of this proposal," tribal attorney Bill Rastetter said.

Johnson, who has owned property on South Fox for 12 years, said this is the first time the land-claim issue has arisen. He said he's asked that the claims be identified specifically, but that hasn't happened.

"It's frustrating we can't get any factual basis," Johnson said, adding he feels "phenomenally frustrated" over the whole swap.

"We have addressed and accommodated a variety of constituencies," including endangered species advocates, hunters, and preservationists, he said. "We feel every single thing has been addressed."

Rastetter said the tribe hasn't had incentive to document the claims, since it is a BIA responsibility. He noted a conflict of interest in that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which accepted public comment on the swap through July 15, and the National Park Service, which also plays a decision-making role, are part of the Department of the Interior, as is the BIA.

"It's really unconscionable for two other agencies to even consider a proposal that might impact these Indian claims," Rastetter said. "If the agencies made a decision to go forward, one wonders if it would be consistent with their trust obligation to the Indians."

He also said he wondered if it would be fair to the public, which could be shorted in the swap if tribal claims are upheld.

"Is it possible to analyze the fairness of the trade if there are claims?" he asked.

The band estimates between 25 and 30 percent of its 3,600 members are descended from the island. An island history book reports its population of American Indians and whites peaked in the 1920s, when about 60 people made their living farming and lumbering there.

Some 17 tribal members and staff renewed their resolve to be heard on the South Fox dispute late last month, when they co-sponsored a charter ferry and visited their ancestral home. More visited July 5. For many, it was their first trip to the island, about 25 miles off the coast of mainland Leelanau County, where the band's reservation is located. For all, it was deeply moving.

"Ready to go home again," is how Jaime Barrientoz, tribal council vice chairman, described his feelings after seeing the island where his great-grandfather and other relatives lived.

"This is our history and we just can't allow it to happen," he said of the swap. "I would like to see the federal government live up to their trust responsibilities."

"This is astronomical. I've wanted this all my life," said Darrell Wright, a 71-year-old Grand Traverse member who first sought access to the island six years ago to visit the grave of his grandfather. He said Johnson denied him access to the tribal cemetery site. Johnson recalled requesting documentation to verify Wright's request, which was never provided.

Among tribal members, opinions varied about what to do with the land if its claims are upheld and title returned. Some suggested building a communal facility, perhaps a lodge. Others favored simply leaving the island natural. What won't happen, they said, is development.

"Whenever Indians raise the issue of land claims, they automatically think casino," Barrientoz said. "That's not the case. I would like to see it left natural."

A common concern of all opponents has been development and the consequences it poses to pristine South Fox. Johnson has said he intends only to use the island as a personal retreat, but opponents say there's no guarantee that either he - or some future owner - won't change their minds. Leaving the patchwork ownership pattern makes development more difficult, they say.

Johnson points out he already owns 2,200 contiguous acres, more than enough to develop if he wanted to. He and the state say trespassing is a problem, and that consolidating ownership simplifies property management.

The night before the excursion, tribal member Helen Paul, whose father had a lumber business on the island as recently as the 1950s, was hostess for a feast at her home. They ate the food their ancestors likely ate - boiled potatoes, corn, fry bread, cornmeal. They saved some of each dish and burned it on the island.

"We started a sacred fire to feed our ancestors that are on the island," Paul said. "We do that to let them know we still care."

After walking around the public land on the island's southern tip, Paul and her brother smoked beneath a tree.

"It's probably been a long time since someone smoked a sacred Pipe here, or offered tobacco to the spirits that are here," she said.

As they finished the ritual, just before boarding the boat to leave the island, an eagle soared overhead. To Paul, that means her prayers that the island stay in its natural state will be carried to the Great Spirit.

"That makes me real happy," she said.

Eagle notwithstanding, the tribe will continue to oppose the swap. It is on record as an opponent, for the host of environmental and political reasons argued by others. Besides the threats to habitat, opponents contend the swap is a political payback to Johnson, a large donor to the Republican Party, which holds the Michigan governor's office and controls both legislative chambers. Johnson scoffs at that accusation.

"Gov. (John) Engler and his people don't do political favors and neither do I," Johnson said, adding he makes more charitable than political contributions.

Rastetter said he expects the tribe would file another objection before the public comment deadline. But he still contends that decision-makers are ignoring the primary issue.

"We ought not to be looking at those land claims as one of many factors," he said. "It really diminishes the importance of the land claims and trivializes them."