(CN) – Native Americans in Michigan sued the U.S. Interior Department claiming its refusal to recognize their tribe has prevented it from benefiting from federal programs.
In a lawsuit filed in the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia, the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians says their predecessors, the Cheboygan Band, had been federally recognized as a sovereign and autonomous Indian nation by the treaty of Washington, signed in 1836, and the Treaty of Detroit, which was signed even earlier, in 1807.
According to the plaintiffs, the federal government also recognized the tribe in 1917, when the band was allowed to sue a sheriff who burned down their village, forcing them to move.
They go on to explain that because the band never regained its lands, it has remained landless ever since.
The plaintiffs claim the federal government failed to apply an organized and uniform method to identify and recognize landless tribes.
They claim the tribe was denied official recognition in 2006 due to it not having a reservation despite the Interior Department recognizing other landless tribes.
According to complaint, without federal recognition, the tribe’s members are unlawfully prevented from accessing federal services related education, healthcare and welfare programs.
Compounding the situation, the plaintiffs say, is a 2015 decision by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to prohibit any tribe or band from re-petitioning for recognition.
The plaintiffs seek an order finding the defendant’s failure to issue a final decision about the band’s 1935 petition for recognition, which went unanswered, violates the Fifth Amendment and denies its members due process and protection.
“For 80 years the defendant’s ‘non-decision’ has prevented the band from receiving necessary benefits and services … access to education, health and welfare programs that are only for recognized tribes,” the complaint says.
The complaint also asks that the Bureau of Indian Affairs be directed to reconsider the band’s petition.
The tribe is represented by John Cooney of Venable LLP in Washington, DC.
Representatives of the defendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment.