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Tribal Council Removes Late Chairwoman’s Memorial From Reservation Cemetery

In a tangled mess of tribal politics run amuck, three of five council members of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBPI) voted on October 20, 2011 to remove late chairwoman Laura Spurr’s memorial stone from the Pine Creek Cemetery in Athens, Michigan, and have it moved to another location at her family’s expense.

Laura Spurr walked on February 19, 2010 in Murrieta, California where she was making a presentation on the construction and design of the FireKeepers Casino. She suffered a massive heart attack.

Spurr was instrumental in developing and expanding the facilities of the Huron Potawatomi Reservation, arranging the transfer of the band’s land into federal trust and leading a 10-year campaign to establish the FireKeepers Casino near Battle Creek, Michigan. She began serving on the tribal council in 1999, was chair for a year from 2000-2001, treasurer from 2001-2003 and was elected chairwoman in 2003 and served in that capacity until her death.

According to her husband, Stephen Spurr, Laura is buried in the Spurr family plot in a cemetery in New Hampshire. In November 2010 he notified each member of the tribal council by letter of the families desire to have a memorial for Laura in Pine Creek Cemetery. There were no objections. According to Spurr, no tribal member has ever been denied the right to have either a marker or memorial in the cemetery. So the family then commissioned and paid for a memorial stone to be placed in Pine Creek Cemetery on the reservation next to the gravestones and markers of other members of her family.

Then in a surprise move, Tribal Chairman Homer A. Mandoka presented three resolutions during an October 20 council meeting that were all passed with a majority vote. The first motion was to “order” the Spurr family to remove the marker from the cemetery “…at their cost no later than 5 p.m. on Monday, October 24, and a notice will be e-mailed.” A second motion to authorize the Spurr family to place the memorial on a prepared foundation in the newly established memorial park was also made by Mandoka. The third motion was then made and passed, “If the memorial marker of Laura Spurr is not removed as ordered, then the tribe shall move it to the prepared foundation in the newly established memorial park or any other suitable location with no waiver of the tribe’s sovereign immunity and a notice will be e-mailed to Steven Spurr.”

Numerous calls to Chairman Mandoka’s office over a two-week period were directed to his voicemail and went unreturned.

“Laura’s brother is also buried elsewhere, but has a memorial in the Pine Creek Cemetery. It wasn’t like we were breaking new ground,” Spurr said. “I thought it would be nice to have a memorial for her on the reservation because her mother and sister live right there and could walk down the hill and see it; they did that regularly before we were forced to move it,” he said.

Spurr said the second resolution that was passed authorizing the family to place the memorial in the newly established memorial park was unacceptable due to the fact that it was nothing but an unimproved lot. So he had the memorial temporarily placed off the reservation in another cemetery a short drive from the Pine Creek Cemetery.

The memorial is sitting on a temporary footing and Spurr said when the current council is gone he would like to see it placed back on the reservation next to her other family members. “Our family is really angry, the tribal council has done a great dishonor to her,” he said. “The ironic thing is the tribal council has almost absolute power over what happens on the reservation. The only reason the reservation is there today is because Laura got the tribe its federal trust status—that was her accomplishment.”

Spurr said his wife was acknowledged as the most effective leader in the modern history of the tribe and has received numerous national awards from American Indian organizations, including being honored as one of two Tribal Leaders of the Year by the Native American Finance Officers Association in 2009. Posthumous awards include a certificate of Special Congressional Recognition in Honor and in Memory of Laura Wesley Spurr that was enacted by the 111th U.S. Congress on February 27, 2010, by former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Michigan. Her tribe also honored her when a Red Dress Event for Native women’s health was named after her on February 12, 2011; and the community of Athens, in which she lived, named her an Honor Citizen at its annual summer homecoming festival in July 2010. There was even an article titled “Laura is Honored By Her Home Town” in the October 2010 issue of NHBPI’s newspaper Turtle Press.

“We were quite surprised by the council’s actions,” Spurr said. “It should be noted that Mandoka was originally chosen by Laura to run for tribal council and endorsed by her. I believe that a few years from now, the council members who are blocking the permanent placement of Laura’s memorial stone will be remembered for that reason alone. They will be remembered for preventing her from having the same right that all tribal members have always had—that will be their only legacy.”

This tile work mural in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of California, serves as a memorial dedicated to the original peoples of the island.

Laura Wesley Spurr's memorial stone on a temporary structure in Pine Creek Cemetery.