At the time of their first encounters with European explorers in the early 17th century, the Ojibwa—or Chippewa—Indians of the upper Great Lakes occupied a territory almost as large as Nova Scotia. The geographic centre of the Ojibwa world—home to as many as 10,000 Indians— was the rapids of the St. Marys River, a 75-mile-long channel through which Lake Superior drains into Lake Huron. But the Ojibwa were split in two when Canada and the United States drew their border along the river, which is now straddled by the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Since then, the divided halves of the Ojibwa have evolved under radically different systems. U.S. constitutional law recognizes the Michigan Ojibwa—and all native American tribes—as dependent sovereign nations with the right to limited self-government. But Canadian tribes such as the Ojibwa do not enjoy similar rights; instead, they are closely administered by Ottawa under a patchwork of laws. Last week, Maclean’s Associate Editor Paul Kaihla visited the Ojibwa on both sides of the river to compare their lives. His report:
It is only midday at Vegas Kewadin, but hard-drinking men in steelworkers union jackets are already laying down bets. Electronic chimes ring in their ears as dozens of nearby slot machines spit out heavy one-dollar tokens in rapid-fire payouts. The casino is the centre of the commercial empire of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians on the Michigan side of St. Marys River. The $5million complex houses 250 slot machines, 36 blackjack tables and keno and roulette games. More than a million customers from Canada, Michigan and other states have visited the casino since it opened in 1985—and it now generates more than $1.2 million in profits a year.
Declared Bonnie McKerchie, the 41-year-old band member who oversees the operation: “We’re on a roll.”
Although gambling is forbidden under Michigan state law, the 6,000member band operates the casino with impunity because it is exempt from state legislation. The band is also not required to pay state taxes, enabling it, among other things, to buy—and sell—liquor more cheaply than non-native competitors in Sault Ste. Marie. The tribe has its own 10-member police force, as well as eight conservation officers who enforce tribal regulations on traditional hunting and fishing grounds across Michigan’s upper peninsula. Band members who violate the reservation’s legal code, which closely parallels Michigan’s state statutes, are brought before tribe-appointed judges. (The most common penalty is community service work.) Only serious crimes, such as murder, kidnapping, rape and arson, are governed by federal law—and tried in a non-native court.
The Chippewas’ autonomy has helped them gain new wealth. Before 1975, the band did not control its own land because it had never signed a treaty with Washington. Since then, it has purchased a total of 814 acres scattered throughout the Sault area, using U.S. government subsidies and, more recently, casino-generated profits. The Chippewa have marshalled their growing assets to launch a wide array of community-run businesses. In addition to Vegas Kewadin—Ojibwa for “Vegas of the North”—the band operates a casino and hotel in nearby St. Ignace, Mich., a 47-room motel in Sault Ste. Marie, a general store, a native artsand-crafts shop, an industrial cleaning firm and a construction company. The Chippewa have also built about 350 nonprofit rental units, many of them ultramodern buildings equipped with roof-mounted solar-energy
panels. Said band member Lori Jump, a tribal court official who lived in one of the homes for four years before buying her own house last year off the reservation: “The band housing authority is very picky. You’re not allowed to have junk in your yard. And if you don’t cut your lawn, they’ll do it for you—and stick you with the bill.” For the most part, band members accept those restrictions as being necessary for the common good. The profits from the band’s enterprises, which provide jobs for roughly 650 tribe members, are used to fund about 50 separate programs in the areas of health, job training, education and housing. With those resources, the band has reduced its unemployment rate in the Sault area to 15 per cent from about 70 per cent a decade ago. In the same period, the high-school
dropout rate among band members
has fallen to 35 per cent from more than 90 per cent.
Despite those successes, some band leaders maintain that the tribe still depends too heavily on Washington, which provides about 40 per cent of its $5.5-million annual budget. Said band research and planning director
Dwight (Bucko) Teeple: “Any kind of reliance on outside funding is not self-government. We must become self-sufficient.”
To meet that goal, the Chippewa are expanding their commercial activities. Next to the Vegas Kewadin casino, a 52-room hotel and restaurant complex—featuring luxury suites with whirlpool baths—is nearing completion. The band is also planning to build a small automotive-parts factory in the region. But the biggest new venture involves a major housing project. Last year, tribal leaders obtained bank financing to buy 200 acres of a nearby disused U.S. air force base for $3.5 million. Later this year, band leaders plan to renovate 500 units of housing on the property to provide additional homes for members of the tribe. Declared Teeple, 43: “The key is to be successful in business.”
Less of St. than Marys five miles River, from the Vegas Michigan Kewadin, band’s on poor the cousins Canadian inhabit side the Garden River First Nation Reserve. As recently as the 1950s, the Garden River Ojibwa could cross the frozen river in winter on horseback or on foot to purchase supplies from U.S. stores. But the river no longer freezes over—partly a result, the natives say, of toxic effluent from heavy industry in neighboring Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Another challenge faced by the 1,600 natives who live on the 32,000acre reserve is finding work. Band member Phil Perrault, 42, who keeps five freezers packed with moose meat from hunting trips he takes with his Remington rifle, says that he earns about $11,000 a year doing seasonal work as a logger and laborer. “But for most, there’s no jobs,” Perrault, a twice-divorced father of four children, said as he cooked spaghetti with moose meat in the cramped two-bedroom house that he shares with his mother.
Indeed, unemployment in Garden River has reached 75 per cent. The band also suffers from the same social problems that are common to tribes across Canada. According to Charles (Bud) Wildman, the area’s MPP and the provincial minister of native affairs, the high-school dropout rate among Garden River residents is about twice the national average of 30 per cent.
At the same time, police records indicate that there were about 100 criminal cases in Garden River last year. That is more than twice the number of cases recorded among the 2,500 residents of the main Chippewa reservation in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. And in contrast to the Ojibwa neighborhoods on the U.S. side of the river, some of the homes in
Garden River are small, dilapidated and surrounded by the rusting bodies of abandoned cars. Said Vegas Kewadin’s McKerchie, who has dozens of relatives living on the Canadian reserve: “They have nothing. They’ve been held back.”
The proud 36-year-old chief of the Garden River band, Darrell Boissoneau, acknowledges that his tribe has fallen behind its American counterpart—and he blames the federal Indian Act. The bill, which took effect in 1876, made Indians wards of Ottawa—with reserves subject to provincial and federal laws. Boissoneau complains that the situation has prevented his band from developing its own institutions. Garden River students attend public schools in Sault Ste. Marie. And even the most minor criminal cases involving natives are tried, in Boissoneau’s words,
in “white man’s court.”
The only year-round business that the band runs is a bingo hall, where the largest jackpot is $4,500. But because almost all of the patrons are band members, the enterprise brings little new money into the community. The most significant hurdle to economic development, Boissoneau says, is the federal prohibition on the use of reserve lands as collateral for loans—a right enjoyed by U.S. tribes that inhabit treaty lands. Declared the chief, who wears a warrior’s eagle feather: “We are sitting on millions of dollars of real estate, and we can’t use it to access financial institutions.” According to Boissoneau, a constitutional recognition of natives’ inherent right to self-government would help to remove such obstacles. And the successes of the tribe across the river serve as a clear reminder of what new powers could mean to the residents of Garden River. Boissoneau says that members of his band want the right to regulate hunting, fishing and logging on reserve lands—and to collect royalties from the sale of licences to non-natives. He adds that self-government could lead to the creation of community-owned business-
es, health care and educational programs, and the establishment of a court system based on traditional native practices.
Without the means to generate significant revenues, the band is negotiating with the Ontario government to obtain money for new enterprises. For one thing, the Ojibwa hope to win financial compensation from the province in a complex land-claims case dating back to 1859. And after 18 years of negotiations with the Ontario government, the band is poised to sell a right-of-way for a proposed four-lane bypass of the Trans-Canada Highway around Sault Ste. Marie that would cut through reserve lands.
Band leaders have asked the ministry to buy the required gravel from a quarry on the reserve—and to grant construction and maintenance contracts for the new highway to band members. Some members say that the new Trans-Canada route could spawn a variety of tribal businesses, such as a roadside hotel, restaurant, gas station and native craft shop.
For now, though, Garden River residents are busy making smaller improvements. Scores of band members have received $26,000 federal grants to build new homes—replacing the reserve’s deteriorating housing stock. And last month, the Ontario government pledged $600,000 towards the construction of a reserve health centre that will blend modern medical practices with traditional native healing arts. But with their cousins on the other side of the river demonstrating that they are increasingly the masters of their own fate, the people of Garden River are also planning for a time when they, too, can begin to take charge of their own affairs. □
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