Nonprofit organizes trips to redistricting hearings to provide platform for Native American voices

Community Redistricting is a series about how Michigan communities are working together to end gerrymandering so that all residents have a voice at the local, state, and federal level. This series is made possible with funding from the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

After 80 Michigan residents stood before the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to comment on the draft maps released by the commission this past October, the in-person portion of the Lansing public hearing, it had appeared, was complete. It was time for the commission to move on to remote public commentary, held virtually via Zoom.

The public hearing itself was held on Thursday, Oct. 21, at the Lansing Center, one of five such hearings throughout the state. The number of hearings was contentious; what was being discussed, even more so. Original plans called for nine public hearings but delays in the redistricting process cut that number to five. The topic at hand? The draft maps recently released by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) as part of the state’s new political map-drawing process, a months-long affair that left some communities questioning whether or not anybody was listening in the first place.

Attendees, whether there in person or virtually, were each allotted 90 seconds to comment on the draft maps released by the MICRC before the commission moved on to the next step of the map-making process. There is a monk-like level of patience sometimes required of sitting in on hearings like these. As the hours go by, some might say they can become a little, well, let’s say monotonous.

There was a bit of a lull by the time the commission had gotten into the virtual comment period that day, says Joan Gustafson, external affairs officer for the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA). Gustafson was there observing the proceedings; the MNA has been very hands-on in organizing the state’s “communities of interest” throughout this year’s redistricting process. But after a few comments had been delivered remotely, the hearing received a shot in the arm as a new group arrived to deliver their comments in person. Joan Gustafson, external affairs officer for the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA)

It was Miigwech, Inc., a relatively new nonprofit organization representing Native American tribal communities and founded by Meredith Kennedy, a Waganakising Odawa tribal citizen and resident of northern Michigan.

“Meredith and about a dozen people filed into the Lansing Center, many of them in their traditional attire, and they all walked in and, all of a sudden, the commissioners and everyone there were like, ‘What? What’s this?’” Gustafson recalls. The deadline for in-person comments hadn’t yet been reached, so the commission gave the floor to the group.

“They called them up, one by one, and they each gave testimony in a mix of their native language and in English. It was extremely powerful. Everybody was just all of a sudden paying attention. Even the commissioners were thanking them at the end.”

Recognizing tribal sovereignty

For Meredith Kennedy, grabbing people’s attention was much of the point.

“Even though this was about redistricting, it was even more of a way for us to say: Number one, you’re on our lands, and you should include us in everything. And number two, we're everywhere. We're in every voting neighborhood. We're in every voting bloc. We are all over the place. And so remember that while you're here, we want you to be living up to our values,” Kennedy says.

Those two points inform much of the Miigwech, Inc. mission. Community outreach and programming are two more.

The organization was formed earlier this year when a neighbor’s childcare business was in danger of closing. It was, Kennedy says, the only childcare option in her community, the closing of which could set off a domino effect of economic hardship for the families that rely on it being there. Kennedy called around, eventually securing a grant from the Jewish Federation nonprofit. Miigwech, Inc. was formed to accept that grant and pass it on to the community. The nonprofit now runs several community programs, including those in equitable workforce development, advocating for water protection, tribal land reclamation efforts, and more.

The founding of Miigwech, Inc. was a momentous occasion of recognition in and of itself, Kennedy says. First formed as a nonprofit organization through tribal code under Waganakising Odawak Statute 2003-07, Miigwech, Inc. would then be recognized as a 501(c)(3) by the IRS. That’s a big deal, as Kennedy puts it.

“It recognizes our tribal sovereignty, that my tribe can make laws, that my body of government can make laws that are recognized by the federal government.”

The fact that the Michigan Nonprofit Association invited Miigwech, Inc. to be part of a cohort of 38 nonprofits in their own redistricting efforts, and before they were even recognized as a legitimate nonprofit by the federal government, served to convince Kennedy that the program was something worth considering. The MNA cohort of 38 nonprofits was organized to support underrepresented communities in the state’s redistricting efforts, assisting “communities of interest,” a phrase from the new law, in crafting political maps and narratives in hopes of influencing the MICRC in their political map-drawing process.

“The more people that recognize that tribal code from our tribal governments is also law, to me, that's a huge win,” says Kennedy. “The fact that they were going to be supportive of us before we got our IRS letter, that there is a nonprofit association saying, ‘Hey, they're just incorporated under a different government. It's not the state or federal government, but it's still a government.’ That was huge.”

Miigwech, Inc. organized trips to three of the five public hearings to provide comment on the draft maps released by the MICRC.
‘You don’t see us every day, but we are here every day’

For Kennedy, the federal government’s recognition of Miigwech, Inc. as a nonprofit formed under tribal code can be viewed as a “win.” But in view of the state’s redistricting efforts, getting Michigan’s Native American communities to recognize state and federal governments as legitimate in the first place is a completely different issue unto itself.

“A lot of people don’t even realize that some people in my community don't recognize your government. They look at them here as invaders. They’ve broken treaties,” Kennedy says. “You're wanting to reach the indigenous vote, or the indigenous voice — remember that some of us don't even recognize you being here as legitimate.”

The MNA’s invitation to the group prior to its acknowledgement by the IRS got Miigwech, Inc. on board. Internal conversations throughout Miigwech, Inc. helped decide that though they may be leary, or even downright dismissive, of the state’s redistricting efforts, their inclusion in the cohort could provide Miigwech, Inc. an important platform for the state’s vast and varied indigenous population.

Bob Chunn, president and co-founder of RelA2ve, an Ann Arbor-based technology firm, has been working hand-in-hand with the MNA and their nonprofit coalition, guiding them through the redistricting process with help from the company’s NextVote mapping technology. He helped Miigwech, Inc. submit several “communities of interest” maps to the MICRC. Their maps were as much about calling for the state to acknowledge Native Americans’ existence as they were about political boundaries, he says.
One of the “community of interest” maps submitted to the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission by Miigwech, Inc.
“They were saying: Here’s where indigenous people live,” as much as anything else, Chunn says. As the maps reflect, Native Americans live in our biggest cities and population centers, and not just the rural communities of central and northern Michigan. As Kennedy said earlier, “We’re everywhere.”

When members of her own community asked her why they should participate, Kennedy would respond that “number one, we need to have a voice. Number two, we need to come up in numbers so people realize that we’re still here.”

Kennedy organized trips to three of the five public hearings, with a total of nearly 50 people traveling to Gaylord, Grand Rapids, and Lansing to provide comment on the draft maps released by the MICRC. And while they were there to talk redistricting, there was something bigger going on, too.

“We came in as a group, because not only are we commenting on the maps but we're making the comment that we are still here. And you still need to include us. You don't see us every day but we are here every day. So I made the point that our group. We all filed in together, we stood together, we said what we needed to say, and then we all left together,” says Kennedy.

“When you have anywhere from 20 to 30 people stand up, come in together, and leave together, that's an impact.”