Up North with the tribe that wants to adopt Lansing

A look inside the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians: How tribal gaming is modernizing the Sault Tribe and how politics is tearing it apart


Sault Ste. Marie — Outside the historic Chippewa County Court House, a statue depicting a Roman legend greets visitors near the north entrance. Two small children, Romulus and Remus, are feeding off a she-wolf, which raises the children who were abandoned by their mother. As the legend goes, Romulus later killed his brother and founded the city of Rome.

What does this have anything to do with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, whose home reservation is 4,500 miles away from the original statue in Rome? Early 20th-century Gov. Chase Osborn, the Michigan’s only Upper Peninsula-born governor, saw something in it: An Ojibwe legend depicting the founding of Bawating — Sault Ste. Marie — tells the story of brothers rescued by a crane after their mother abandons them. One of the boys goes on to found the Crane Clan and Bawating.

Today, the Sault Tribe is by no means expanding into an empire, but it does have its eyes set on some land nearly 300 miles southwest of its home reservation in The Soo. It’s election season up here and added to the political fodder is a little casino you may have heard about involving the Sault Tribe and the city of Lansing. 

If you want to understand how locals feel about the idea, the question of “Are you for the Lansing casino or against?” is a far too simple and trite conversation-starter. The Sault Tribe are a people with bruised egos, at once embarrassed and angry at their own leaders for the Detroit Greektown Casino debacle that sent the tribe head-first into bankruptcy, $268 million later with nothing to show for it. Lansing officials are dealing with a skeptical lot in Sault Tribe rank-and-file members. Last week, a former Sault Tribe chairman turned in a petition for a referendum that will allow registered Sault Tribe voters to vote up or down on the development agreement with Lansing — a vote that has current Chairman Joe Eitrem concerned the deal in the south will go south (see City Pulse Feb. 29 issue).

Meanwhile, tribal gaming as economic development is evident in The Soo. It’s hardly a ticket to lavish decadence, but to improved health care, education and public services. Children at the local charter school work from laptops during class. The tribal health center is modernizing thanks largely to proactive grant writers but also from gaming revenue. Even non-tribal leaders at the city of Sault Ste. Marie say the city’s relationship with the tribe — whose main reservation is a short drive from downtown Sault Ste. Marie — is better than it’s ever been.

The promise of economic self-sufficiency — indeed, the ultimate goal of the Sault Tribe — is very much relevant when discussing tribal casinos. But with promise comes skepticism. Members not fully on board yet with a Lansing casino want their concerns about working with outside parties known. They don’t want to live through another Greektown.

After all, among the casino developers, the city of Lansing and the Sault Tribe, you could argue the tribe has the most to lose — and the most to gain — in the Kewadin Lansing idea. According to the agreement between the tribe and the developers, Lansing Future LLC will be out of the picture seven years after (or if) it’s built. The tribe will have paid off everything it owes to them and the developers will ride off into the sunset. Lansing will get a few-million-dollar payout for students and cops. Yet Sault Tribe leaders have the trust of its members at stake, and if it all ends up failing in court, what then?

‘Adversarial  people’

Most of my knowledge about the Upper Peninsula was handed down by friends from Marquette and Escanaba; Joshua Davis and Greg Brown songs; and Jim Harrison books. I keep a bottle of Ray’s Polish Fire hot sauce — made at the Keewenaw Co-Op — in the cupboard. I’ve crossed the Mackinac Bridge probably fewer than a dozen times. I’m what Yoopers call a “troll,” from downstate beneath the bridge.

Sault Ste. Marie is situated along the St. Mary’s river in the northeast corner of the Upper Peninsula. Today, four Native American tribes call the region home: the Sault Tribe, Bay Mills Indian Community, Garden River First Nation and the Batchewana First Nation.

Tribes today function as a result of several federal and state agreements dating back to the late 1700s. The Jay Treaty of 1794 was the first to distinguish tribes as their own entities from American citizens. The 1836 Treaty of Washington established boundaries for the Chippewa and Ottawa nations in much of southeast Michigan and the northwest portion of the Lower Peninsula and eastern Upper Peninsula. 

The Sault Tribe was federally recognized in 1972 and passed its constitution in 1975 — that’s relatively young when considering the tribe as a sovereign entity with its own government and political system.

The Sault Tribe is the largest federally recognized tribe east of the Mississippi River, made up of more than 40,000 members. Roughly 11,000 of them live within the “service area,” or the seven eastern counties in the U.P. The tribe’s size is largely due to its liberal rules for accepting members: It does not admit based on “blood quantum,” or requiring a minimum percentage of Native American blood. In the city, nearly 18 percent identified themselves as American Indian in the 2010 census. In Michigan, it’s .6 percent and slightly more throughout the U.S. (.9 percent).

I bone up on my indigenous peoples history with Phil Bellfy on the Saturday of my stay. Bellfy, who bought the 220-acre property he lives on south of the Sault Tribe reservation in 1973, reminds me of a sober Jim Harrison. He emphasizes “fuckin’” and “shit” — which is fairly often — in his sentences, but he’s never drunk (it’s not traditional for Native Americans to do so, he says) or smoked. He’s grizzled, with a ponytail and beard. Bellfy was my American Studies professor at Michigan State University. He wrote a book called “Indians and Other Misnomers.” He’s officially retiring in September. He spends his breaks and most weekends at his Sault Township home. He remembers Nov. 10, 1975, clearly, when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank not far from Whitefish Bay and Sault Ste. Marie. “That was a strange fuckin’ night,” he said. “I lost nine big ones (trees). You could lean back and the wind would hold you up.”

He grew up in Livonia and spent some of his younger years in Detroit, but moved north because the city was “literally driving me crazy.” He wrote a poem about it.






We drove around in his light blue Toyota 4Runner for about six hours. Bellfy is of the White Earth Band of Minnesota Chippewa and has no personal interest in Lansing’s casino proposal, except that he’s against it. “I have a big problem with the whole system” of gambling as economic development, he says. “I don’t approve of gambling, but I’ve seen what it’s done to develop this community,” which has made a “vast, vast improvement” since he moved here in 1970.

We take the back roads west to the Bay Mills reservation about 30 minutes away. Bay Mills has two casinos within 20 minutes of each other, one of which was the first casino to open in Michigan — Kings Club.

We arrive at the Dancing Crane Coffee House and visit with 61-year-old owner Jim LeBlanc. We talk tribal casinos for a bit.

“We started this thing in the right spirit. I think we should be talking with each other about how to do it better,” LeBlanc said referring to the tribes sparring with each other semingly whenever a new casino opens. “The adversarial climate is not really our way. It’s about time we gave it up.”

Bay Mills is in the middle of its own casino controversy: when Kewadin Lansing was first proposed, experts pointed to Bay Mills’ situation in Vanderbilt as a reason the Sault Tribe probably couldn’t open in Lansing. Bay Mills purchased land in Vanderbilt in the northern Lower Peninsula with Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement money. (The Sault Tribe is doing something similar, except it wants to buy Lansing property with interest accrued from the settlement act money.) Competing tribes like the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians were successful in getting an injunction to close the Vanderbilt casino, which is being appealed in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Soon, Mike Willis comes into the coffee shop. Willis served on the Bay Mills Tribal Council from 2005 to 2009. He’s also the director of Native American studies at Bay Mills Community College in Brimley. He says gaming is slowly bringing Bay Mills out of decades of economic depression. 

“Tribal gaming has been a savior for us, it has made us a lot more self-sustaining. Without it, there would be so much more of a burden on us,” Willis said. “It’s ironic that we may have started Indian gaming yet we’re one of the poorest tribes in the United States.”

LeBlanc, who lived in Lansing in the early ‘70s, says he has “two spirits in me that disagree all the time — one side for, one against” that are relevant when talking gambling. 

“It’s a slippery slope on one hand. On the other, it’s helped our people,” he said. “Good people are trying to make it work, then you’ve got your Jack Abramoffs and lawyers — adversarial people. Bay Mills was the first to do things, why not be the first to clean it up?”

Where revenues go: 

Education and healthcare

The Joseph K. Lumsden School near the Sault Tribe reservation on Marquette Avenue is promising. Native and non-native students can attend (more than half are Native American) and admission is based on a lottery system. There’s a waiting list to get in. It’s a K-8 charter school and falls under three governing agents: Northern Michigan University, the Michigan Department of Education and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. There’s talk of expanding JKL, but since it was built on wetlands, doing so at the current site is unlikely.

The school is technically independent from the tribe. It includes 472 students, 102 staff members and 40 classrooms. The average classroom size is 20 students. JKL is a “feeder school” for the Sault Ste. Marie School District. Students walk through the halls carrying Dell laptop computers and also work from them in class. While the advanced technology comes largely from grants, JKL also sees Sault Tribe gaming revenues and is offered space at the casino for talent shows and other large functions.

“We have a great relationship with the tribe,” said Carolyn Dale, director of curriculum at JKL. Like all schools in communities where the Sault Tribe has a casino, JKL receives a portion of “2 percent” payments from gaming revenues. That amount varies each year, Dale said. Giving revenues back to the schools is not unique to the Sault Tribe, she added. “Such a low rate of tribal kids goes to college. There’s always some kind of profit sharing. I think it’s a great idea.”

Dale said a casino represents more than just gambling to some, particularly in Sault Ste. Marie, where the facility includes a hotel, restaurants, an art gallery and a 1,500-seat theater for national touring acts. “It’s a place to go for things, a place to eat. We’re kind of a small place. It still generates jobs and revenue . … It’s not all about, ‘Oh my gosh, gambling’ — a lot goes on there.”

The JKL school opened in 1992. When she started working there 13 years ago, Dale said it was a different place. Fewer than 200 students attended and and fewer than one in five had passing MEAP scores. Today, it’s at 100 percent, she said. “We were struggling. Discipline problems, no textbooks, huge teacher turnover rate — it was just sort of a private tribal school… The tribe has been a big player in bringing back schools where they need to be, just with the revenue.”

My guide on Friday is Jennifer Dale-Burton, editor of the Sault Tribe newspaper. The paper, Win Awenen Nisitotung, is circulated to 19,600 tribal households across the U.S. and military bases. She’s also Carolyn Dale’s sister. Later in the afternoon, we swing through the tribe’s Health and Human Services center, where a story similar to the JKL school is unfolding. 

Physical health among tribal populations throughout the country is notoriously poor. Diabetes, obesity, heart disease and alcoholism run rampant.

“Our population has problems with the European diet and sedentary lifestyle,” Dale-Burton says as we drive through the Chi Mukwa (Big Bear) Recreation Facility, a place for youth sports and general exercise.

The 50,000-square-foot health center built in 1994 is for tribal members only and offers a combination of traditional healing and modern western medicine. Dentistry, optometry, radiology, a pharmacy, basic health care and behavioral health services are all housed in the center. In the past two years, the center has gone from developing film x-rays to digital and from paper medical records to electronic. Health care is free for tribal members at the center, whose 130 staff members handle about 52,000 visits a year. 

Operations manager Joel Lumsden explains the center’s aggressive efforts for seeking federal grant money to expand its services. Along with grants, there’s also casino revenue: “That definitely helps bolster funding for health activities. It’s been huge for that.” 

When it was built in 1994, the facility wasn’t big enough to accommodate what growth it has seen. “No one could predict the growth this place has had,” Lumsden said. “We’ve been pretty progressive as far as a tribal health center goes. It adds a whole new level of complexity, but it does offer a better health environment.”

On the reservation, tobacco use, alcohol and drug dependency and diabetes are the three big issues plaguing Sault Tribe members. “It’s much more askew than the rest of the population,” Lumsden said. A “multitude of factors” explains this, including genetic pre-dispositions and health disparities between Native Americans on reservations and the rest of the population.

Sarah Willey, a nurse and manager of the diabetes program, says Native Americans have the “thrifty gene.” After generations of living in tough winter conditions, “they got good at conserving energy. Nowadays, the diet is a lot higher in calories and they don’t hunt for food anymore. It’s a definite tie-in to diabetes,” she said.

Up in the health services director’s office, we discuss what role a Lansing casino would play in funding this center.

“Additional money the tribe has available could be put in areas where we still have gaps,” said Bonnie Culfa, health services director. “What we provide we are paying for it well, but there is so much more we’re not able to provide” like an expanded dentistry program. “You do with what you have. We have an unmet need and if the tribe had a lot more revenue coming in, I would be over there after some. We have large unmet needs.”

The city and the tribe

Downtown Sault Ste. Marie in February isn’t a particularly lively place. Yes, it’s a tourist town, but it’s also seen its share of sprawl, leaving the downtown with several vacancies. Overlooking the St. Mary’s River, the Soo Locks and Ontario, Spencer Nebel has a good view from his office in a 101-year-old federal building. Nebel, the city manager of Sault Ste. Marie for 20 years, is joined by Mayor Anthony Bosbous.

The city started getting 2 percent payments from the tribe’s Sault Ste. Marie casino almost 20 years ago, which has amounted to about $8 million, Bosbous said. That money, roughly $300,000 a year, goes to roads and other public services. The city’s general fund is about $10 million. “We consider them a major player in the city and the surrounding area. They’re definitely the largest employer. The tribe itself is the second largest taxpayer in the county,” Bosbous said.

Nebel pointed to three specific agreements between the tribe and the city that he said has moved the parties from a contentious to a good relationship: A mutual law enforcement agreement in 1983; a land trust agreement in 1998 that “basically outlines the area where the city would not object to areas being taken into trust”; and a 2001 agreement about how funds are distributed to the city. “It took us a decade or two to get through those agreements,” Nebel said.

Indeed, as the Sault Tribe applied to the federal government to put trust into land within the city over the years, “the city fought it,” Nebel said. In one instance, the city fought the tribe up to the U.S. Court of Appeals to block a land acquisition deal. The Supreme Court didn’t hear the case and the city ended up losing. “The issue was the federal government taking blocks of land without the city’s input,” Nebel said. “In retrospect, it’s one of the best things that’s happened for the city, having the tribe right in the city.”

“We’ve come a long way since then,” Bosbous added. How ironic, I thought: a U.S. city making a fuss about having its land taken away by Native Americans.

As for policing, each provides backup for the other, depending on if an incident happens on the reservation or off. He said “fairly complex laws” apply when prosecutors take cases, depending on the nature of the crime. “Whether it’s taken in tribal, federal or local court is sorted out after the fact,” Nebel said. “We don’t think about it — it’s not an issue.”

People in Lansing are concerned about increased crime after opening a casino. What have you learned? “I think I’d like to have casinos and deal with these problems individually,” Bosbous said. You “may or may not” be able to link crimes to the casino’s existence, he added.

For concerns about crime and gambling addiction problems, take it in context with the economic benefits afforded by casinos, the two officials say. “Sault Ste. Marie went through an extended, true depression,” Nebel said, referring to the closing of three major manufacturing plants and an air force base in the 1970s. “Sault Ste. Marie had unemployment as high as 20 percent.” So, what happened? One was the expansion of prisons at the old Air Force base, a second was “significant growth” in Canadian traffic, while the third was the introduction of tribal gaming. “Those are three pillars that helped pull this community out of a two-decade long depression,” Nebel said.

Bosbous is in his 11th year as mayor. Ultimately, he’s impressed by Lansing’s pursuit of a casino. “I give Mayor Virg Bernero a lot of credit for pursuing this. I think it’s a great idea for Lansing, a tremendous idea.”

Election season and the 

Greektown hangover

Aaron Payment is not shy about painting a stark political division within the Sault Tribe. Payment is the man behind a referendum giving tribal members an  up or down vote soon on the the Kewadin Lansing development agreement.  Payment is seriously considering running for Sault Tribe chairman in this summer’s election if he can raise enough money, a post he held from 2004 to 2008 but lost in re-election. He also served on the tribal board for eight years before being elected chairman.

Payment describes himself as a “U.P. Democrat” with a strong libertarian bend. He served as tribal chairman from 2004 to 2008, when he lost a re-election bid. 

A recurring theme in Payment’s referendum campaign, aside from having more member input, is excluding board member and former chairman Bernard Bouschor from a role in the casino. Bouschor was CEO of the Greektown Casino from 2002 to 2004. Payment and Boushour are not only political enemies, they’re also cousins. Over coffee at Frank’s Place in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, I ask Payment what he’d do if Bouschor walked through the front door. “Would you say hello?” I ask. He shook his head. 

Payment accuses Bouschor of being unable to separate governing and business. He suspects Bouschor was the key component behind the Sault Tribe’s losing its stake in Greektown. But media reports and outside sources say more was at play than a single politician, even though Bouschor was CEO of Greektown from 2002 to 2004. Too much borrowing and liabilities eclipsed the amount of revenue Greektown brought in while under part ownership of the Sault Tribe. Leadership turnover within the tribe also didn’t make the case for a clear vision for the future: The Sault tribe has had four different chairmen since 2000.

Bouschor has served on and off in Sault Tribe government for more than 30 years. When asked about separating business and government, Bouschor said when the two are blurred, things get messy and contentious. “At times it becomes more of about political issues. That creates problems in business and can create problems on the government side.” He suggested Payment’s populist referendum campaign is Payment “out to get votes. I don’t think it’s the best way to get them. Unfortunately in elections, a lot of promises are made that aren’t real.”

He called Payment’s attempt to have 100 percent of the tribe’s potential revenue from Kewadin Lansing allocated “not real.”

“He, in my opinion, tries to divide the community. He’s saying, ‘You having something, we don’t have anything.’ That’s divisive,” Bouschor said. “It’s not normal in tribal communities. Everything he does is political.”

While Greektown is still fresh in many members’ minds, Bouschor reminds them that the Sault Tribe’s investment is miniscule compared to Greektown: $280,000 for the parcel of land to basically test the legal theory and, if successful, another $900,000 for the rest of the land. In Greektown, land acquisition alone for three different parcels cost $100 million. “It’s a considerable difference,” he said. “There were so many demands made by the city (of Detroit), revenue sharing covenants placed upon the tribe. We are starting a tribal-owned facility.”

At tribal forums in Dearborn and Okemos nearly two weeks ago, several tribal members who live downstate asked how those who live outside the seven-county service area in the U.P. would benefit from the casino revenue.

“You can’t make promises to something on the outside when there’s not enough resources on the inside,” Bouschor said, adding that the highest concentration of Sault Tribe members live in the Sault Ste. Marie area. “What you see on the political side is not a positive thing for the community to have to deal with over and over again.”

Tribal elections are like City Council elections in Lansing. There’s even primaries now, which wasn’t the case 10 years ago, Dale-Burton, of the Sault Tribe newspaper, said. 

“Election time can get pretty crazy,” Dale-Burton said. “Economic development is always an issue. It’s probably the biggest — not just making more money, but what we do with it and our priorities.”

Given its relative youth, outside observers say the Sault Tribe is still coming of age when it comes to politics and governance. Discourse at the lively meetings is often blunt and direct. And, as could be said of most government bodies, the tribe’s business activities and governmental duties clash. Who knows how the tribe will progress in time? 

City officials next door to the reservation have an optimistic outlook. Nebel, city manager of Sault Ste. Marie, suggested: “The tribe is really maturing into a fairly stable organization in terms of electoral changes, but it doesn’t dramatically change the tribe’s direction.” He added: “The tribal board itself plays a greater role than it did 20 years ago. It’s very much a democratic body.”

Mayor Bosbous agrees: “They’re much more sophisticated in the continuity from one leadership to the next and the overall philosophy of trying to maintain growth for that entity.”


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