The Saginaw Chippewas

“Documents are the bricks in the wall that will support the mural that is the investigative story. It is seldom a pretty picture, but there is some beauty in its truth. The story must be well-constructed to withstand the attacks of those who have reason to hide the truth.”

William C. Gaines, Investigative Journalism (2008), CQ Press

The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe has been plagued for decades with enrollment issues, following both a historic land claims settlement and sharing of gaming revenue with its members.

Known as per-capita, the distribution is similar to that of profit sharing and limited to those who meet constitutional guidelines based on lineal ancestry; descendants of the tribe’s first federally-recognized membership roll of 1937 (approved in 1939).

A revision to the tribal constitution, in-addition to resolutions and amendment of an enrollment ordinance, strayed from its original intent, convoluted membership criteria and for over a decade enabled what is referred to as collateral enrollment.

Despite both the tribe’s original and amended constitutions establishing a “Born to a member” rule – meaning either one’s mother or father – enrollment extended beyond, to aunts, uncles and cousins. Adoption of hundreds of adults through resolutions also occurred.

Over the past few years, in an attempt to restore legitimacy and integrity to membership rolls, tribes across the country (most-specifically those with successful gaming operations) began dis-enrolling members who failed to meet long-established criterion.

Many outside Indian Country believe dis-enrollment is simply about greed, “Indians fighting over money,” but for the Saginaw Chippewas it’s also about collateral enrollment.

As gaming tribes became wealthy, opportunists ensued and cultural appropriation emerged as never before. Applications for membership in the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe surged following initiation of per-capita and other benefits, with collateral enrollment reaching into the hundreds.

This strain on the tribal treasury would result in near-depletion of a futures trust (meant to lift legitimate members out of poverty), until ultimately, after decades of litigation an appellate would rule collateral enrollment “a mistake under the law.”

“This (was) neither law nor policy, but a mistake resulting from an erroneous interpretation of (the enrollment law) which was in clear violation of the law, then and now…The officials involved should have known the impermissibility of reading collateral relatives into (the law) and were therefore grossly negligent by engaging in the practice.”

Case No. 12-CA-1051, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribal Court of Appeals (2013)

The Saginaw Chippewas: Subversive Genealogy & Stolen Trust is submersion journalism – where the reporter is part of the story – written by a lineal descendant of the tribe’s first treasurer and based on My Native Life blog (2007-2013).

What unfolds is the saga of a group of tribal elders and others (known as the 39ers) discovering how illegitimate the membership roll had become; and their quest to restore the tribe to its rightful heirs.

“In 1937 the United States recognized the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan as the successor entity to the Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River Bands. The United States recognition of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan under the Reorganization Act of 1934 made this tribe the sole governing power under the treaties.”

Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan Distribution of Judgement Funds Act, U.S. Public Law 99-346 (1986)

About the book jacket…

Designed by Sheryl Rhoades, the front cover alludes to a phenomenon occurring at powwows and tribal events across the country: the practice of non-Natives donning cultural accoutrements. The back cover contains four story-box images representing progression of the story.

To read more about this subject go to Disqus.