Gun Lake Tribal Members Support a Bald Cause—Childhood Cancer Research


A tribal casino in western Michigan is embarking on a campaign against childhood cancer that’s creative, bold—and bald.

More than 50 people have signed up to shave their heads to raise money for childhood cancer research through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. “We’ve actually got a really nice assortment [of volunteers],” said Carter Pavey, director of marketing for Gun Lake Casino, shortly before the March 15 event. “The general manager of the casino and I are participating, a few local police officers are participating, along with the chairman and vice chairman of the tribe. A local DJ is shaving his head and the moustache he has had for 30 years.”

An additional 20 people have balked at going bare, but are actively trying to raise money for the event.

The Gun Lake Casino is an enterprise of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe. Open for little more than a year, it has already made impressive contributions to the state and local governments, as part of revenue-sharing agreements.

Pavey and other members of the casino staff wanted to involve the community in a strong cause, using a fresh activity. “There are a lot of 5k runs that are popular,” he said. “We just wanted to do something different and unique.” The St. Baldrick’s Foundation is especially appealing, he said, because for every dollar they acquire, 82 cents goes toward childhood cancer research.

The National Cancer Institute lists cancer as the leading cause of death by disease among United States children 1 to 14 years of age. While the Indian Health Service (IHS) doesn’t track pediatric cancer rates, cancer in general hits Native American and Alaska Native people at a rate nearly equal to that of non-Natives. IHS reports that cervical cancer rates are higher among Native people, but breast cancer and other cancerous tumors, grouped under the term “malignant neoplasm,” occur less often.

A 2008 American Cancer Society study found the same general trend for young adults in Indian country, ages 20 to 44. That study revealed that cancer rates between 1999 and 2004 were “lower but varied for selected cancers and across IHS regions.”

There are at least two local children benefitting from St. Baldrick’s, Pavey said—one in Grand Rapids, Michigan and another in Hudsonville, Michigan. Neither of those kids are tribal members, but Pavey pointed out that cancer affects people of any age, sex or race.

“While it is a serious cause,” Pavey said, “we’re going to make the best of the event. We’ll shave mullets and mohawks. We have a few people who have goatees, moustaches and beards who haven’t gotten funds to shave them yet; we’ll raise funds for that the day of the event.”

A week before the shaving, fund-raising was strong and the event was on track to meet its $25,000 goal.

“We’re at over $10,000 right now,” he said. “We keep getting more and more in every hour.” Besides pledges for all the bare new ’dos, people have been buying paper pledges and signing their names to shamrock-shaped certificates that line the walls in the casino gift shop and rewards center. “Every wall space is pretty much covered with them,” Pavey said. On the day of the event, the casino also donated a portion of proceeds from food and beverage sales.

Pavey himself is very much a part of the event. He sounded nearly giddy when he spoke of his own plans for the March 15 shave-down.

“I’m shaving my head, and I’ve put out a challenge to my friends that if they lay down the money, I’ll be shaving my head and my beard,” he said. “I’m going to look ridiculous. I’ve never had a shaved head.”