By KEVIN BRACISZESKI
Daily News Staff Writer
MANISTEE — Michigan’s Ottawa Indians sold 16 million acres of land to the federal government in 1836. The local Ottawa tribe is now buying back small parts of that land in Mason and Manistee counties.
The local tribe, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, was officially recognized by the federal government in the mid-1990s and it opened a casino north of Manistee in July 1999. The casino’s slot machines alone brought in an estimated $150 million in revenues during its first 16 months of operation ending in November 2001.
Profits from slot machines and casino table games, as well as the casino’s food and beverage sales, have provided the Little River Band with money that has been used, in part, to buy parcels of local land. The tribe also owns many buildings in the Manistee area.
According to records from the Manistee County Equalization Department, the tribe owns about 1,544 acres in Manistee County with another 501 acres owned by the United States Government in trust for the Little River Band. The band also owns about 740 acres in Mason County’s Custer Township. The combined area of the parcels totals more than 2,785 acres.
Most of the tribe’s land in Manistee County — with the exception of parcels under the casino and near the intersection of U.S. 31 and M-22 — is near the Manistee River. The parcels are in an area originally set aside as reservation land for the Ottawas in 1836. Large portions of surrounding land is now part of the Manistee National Forest.
“Purchasing property there is of great interest to us, to redevelop our land base that was lost between 1836 and 1894,” said Jay Sam, ogema, or leader, of the Little River Band.
Sam said about 1,200 acres near the river were previously owned by Consumers Power Company. That land was turned over to the Great Lakes Fishery Trust in the 1990s as part of the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant fish kill settlement, and the tribe then received it from the trust.
The 1836 treaty between the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians and the U.S. government provided the tribe with 140,000 acres of land along the Manistee River.
However, the original treaty was changed by the U.S. Senate before its ratification. The Senate version only provided the tribes with reservation lands for five years and it included provisions to move tribal members west beyond the Missouri River. The federal government then gave the Ottawas a new treaty in 1855.
The new treaty provided the tribe with a reservation that included Custer and Eden townships in Mason County and Crystal and Elbridge townships in Oceana County. Part of that land came back under tribal ownership in August 2000 when the Little River Band bought about 740 acres in Mason County. The Custer Township land is bordered in part by the Pere Marquette River to the south and First Street to the north and lies between Custer Road and Darr Road.
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“The land in Custer is at or near the old Indian Town site,” Sam said. “We think there used to be a burial site along that area of the river and we want to protect the archeological sites along the river whenever possible.”
Sam said the tribe’s current plans call for removing old barns from the site and possibly starting a cemetery on land adjacent to Riverside Cemetery where it abuts the tribe’s property.
“At the present time there are no plans to put housing on that property,” Sam said. “But that is something that could change in the next three to four years. It’s something that’s been discussed in the past because of the size of the property, but not now.”
He said the tribe is now working to develop a land use plan for its property in Mason County. The plan will include an inventory of plant types on the land and areas of the property that may need environmental protection.
The Little River Band is already building houses on its property near the casino. Sam said 12 homes have been constructed for tribal elders on land southwest of the casino and south of Dontz Road that is held in trust for the tribe by the federal government.
Land where the casino stands was once an orchard and the 152-acre parcel is now owned by the U.S. Government in trust for the tribe. The government also owns the 81-acre parcel that lies across U.S. 31 and is used by the Little River Band as its pow wow grounds.
Sam said Indian gaming regulations stipulate that gambling can only be offered on land held by the federal government. That ownership is also important, he said, because the tribal government can never sell that land or its casino.
The Little River Band does not pay property tax on the casino or its pow wow grounds because the land is owned by the federal government. It does, Sam said, make payments in lieu of taxes for that property that are similar to payments the federal government makes for its Manistee National Forest land.
Manistee County records show the tribe’s holdings in the county’s townships are:
• about 948 acres in Dickson Township with 331.25 acres in Section 35, 265.7 acres in Section 30, 173.37 acres in Section 33, 117.41 acres in Section 34, and 60 acres in Section 36.
• a total, including federal government trust lands, of about 643 acres in Manistee Township with 227.7 acres in Section 21, 192.8 acres in Section 28, 140.47 acres in Section 29, and 81.38 in Section 27.
• a total, including government trust lands, of about 491 acres in Brown Township with 190 acres in Section 20, 79.77 acres in Section 30, 60 acres in Section 26, 50 acres in Section 28, 19.5 acres in Section 29, and five acres in Section 23.
In addition to the rural properties owned by the Little River Band, the tribe also owns many buildings and properties in and near Manistee.
Among those properties are the old bank building on River Street in the city’s downtown business district, a former doctors’ office on Ninth Street that is the tribe’s Family Services Center, the former U.S. Forest Service building and former Michigan Employment and Securities Commission building on U.S. 31 south of the city limits, and the former Clark Equipment factory on Manistee Lake in Eastlake.
According to Manistee County records, the tribe also owns property at 194 Quincy Street, 317 Washington Street, 148 and 148 1/2 Ford Street, 230 1/2 Ninth Street and 909 Davis Street.
Sam said the tribe began buying residential properties in the area for housing for tribal members who have returned to the Manistee area since the casino’s construction.