Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians Seek Federal Recognition, Michigan Gaming Rights

Michigan could be on the cusp of seeing a 13th Native American group receive federal recognition.

That’s potentially interesting to online gamblers, as it would mean the possibility of a 16th online casino and sports betting license in the state. At the moment, there are 15, with 12 held by tribal groups and the other three by Detroit’s commercial casinos.

Unlike New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, Michigan imposes a one-to-one relationship between licenses and online gambling brands. With no option to have multiple skins on a single license, the market is currently at capacity, with newcomer brands like Bally Casino locked out.

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians have been pushing for federal recognition for nearly three decades. Though nothing is certain, they now seem closer to getting it than ever before. There are many social and economic advantages to receiving that status, with the ability to conduct tribal gaming under the Indian Gaming Act being just one.

Support From Michigan Lawmakers And Former OFA Researcher

The Grand River Bands have the state’s lawmakers on their side. Michigan recognized the group’s status in 1996, three years after they began their federal bid for recognition. They’ve been under active consideration by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) at the Department of the Interior since 2013, but it’s a notoriously slow process.

The last time the OFA granted recognition to an applicant group was in 2015, to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia. The Grand River Bands application seemed to be progressing but got hung up in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most recently, the Grand River Bands have produced an affidavit from Aldo Salerno in support of their bid. Salerno worked as a historian at the OFA from 2001 to 2017. In the affidavit, he asserts that his team found in 2016 that the group did warrant federal recognition and that two-thirds of OFA staff were in favor.

In a press release, Grand River chairman Ron Yob said:

Mr. Salerno and these blockbuster internal documents have only confirmed what we’ve known all along — that our tribe clearly meets the criteria for federal recognition, and yet we have been held back by politics and bureaucracy. I’m grateful he has brought this important issue to light and join his call urging the Department of the Interior to issue an immediate decision on our recognition status.

With only about 600 members, the Grand River Bands would be a small tribe, but that may not matter. The Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians in California is the smallest such group, consisting of just seven adults and nine children. Most of Michigan’s tribes have membership in the thousands, but for instance, the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians also number around 600.

Delays Create Frustration For Tribe And Governor Alike

The OFA has given itself until Oct. 12 to decide the issue. On the surface, another four months seems like no big deal in what’s been a decades-long process. However, it becomes a problem when taken in combination with another decision being made in parallel.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (whose membership is approximately 4200) has asked for permission to build a new off-reservation casino in Fruitport Township, Muskegon County. That project has already received DOI approval and is just waiting for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to sign off on it.

If the Grand River Bands receive federal recognition, their reservation lands will be in the same general vicinity. Moreover, they will probably want to build a casino of their own.

Yob feels the Little River Band is attempting to preempt his tribe. He’s described the latter’s plans using terms like “shameful,” “cynical,” and “morally wrong.”

The DOI originally asked Gov. Whitmer to make her decision by Dec. 16, 2021. She managed to obtain a six-month extension, but the new deadline is coming up in a little over a week. Whitmer has petitioned the DOI to extend the deadline further, until after it decides on the Grand River Bands’ fate.

Her letter reads, in part:

My concurrence with the Little River Band’s two-part determination could frustrate the Grand River Bands, which may wish to open their own gaming facility on tribal lands not far from Fruitport Township. Yet DOI has not provided any information on how likely it is that the Grand River Bands will be acknowledged.

Based on Gov. Whitmer’s apparent frustration with the DOI, it would appear that the Grand River Bands’ status is, for her, the deciding factor in whether or not to approve the Little River Band’s plans.

Will Michiganders See New Online Gambling Brands?

Each Michigan tribe – even those with multiple land-based casinos – holds only a single online gambling license. The Little River Band already operates BetRivers Sportsbook & Casino in partnership with Rush Street Interactive (RSI).

So, a new Little River Band casino would not create room for a new online operator. However, a Grand River Bands casino would.

That said, there will probably be some new brands in the market soon either way. For one thing, TwinSpires Sportsbook & Casino should be shutting down any day now, as the company announced in February. When it does so, the Hannahville Indian Community will have its license freed up and can negotiate a new partnership.

Bally Casino would be top of our list for brands most likely to take advantage of a new slot opening in the state. However, there are other newcomers to the US who could be interested in either the Hannahville or hypothetical Grand River licenses. These include:

  • Betway
  • LeoVegas
  • PlayStar
  • Novibet
  • MaximBet

Additionally, RSI recently acquired Run It Once Poker. Since BetRivers lacks a poker product, it can squeeze Run It Once in on the same license. This is already the way things work for Caesars Online Casino and the online poker platform of its subsidiary, WSOP.

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is the Managing Casino News Editor for Bonus, MichiganSharp and NJGamblingSites. He’s a former semiprofessional poker player and has been writing about online gambling professionally since 2014. Prior to his current position, he was Managing Editor at Online Poker Report and, before that, the GameIntel Poker Update, a subscription newsletter for industry executives. Alex provides insightful content on the regulated online casino and poker industries, with an emphasis on legislation, regulation, responsible gambling and business strategy. His writing about poker has earned him multiple nominations for the American Poker Awards over the years.