Athens Township has been home to the Pine Creek Indian Reservation since 1854, but the community and its residents, members of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Pottawatami, say they were largely invisible to the world beyond its borders until they opened a casino in Emmett Township.
The 2009 opening of FireKeepers Casino Hotel was the fulfillment of a dream for tribal elders, says Shirley Mackety-English, Gaming Commission chairperson and former chair of the NHBP tribe.
“Now we’re living their dream,” says Mackety-English. “I always like to say that the elders were the ones who passed on that dream and they are now looking down on us saying ‘well done.’ This is what they wanted for the tribe.”
Mackety-English, who grew up on the Reservation, says she’s proud of what she sees when she comes out to visit and she is also mindful of the groundwork laid by those who came before her that has given the tribe resources and money that they didn’t have when she was a child growing up in the 120-acre community.
Money generated by the casino enabled the tribe to build 33 homes, a health and fitness center, a store, and tribal offices on the Reservation, specifically for tribal members. It also has enabled them to provide financial assistance to younger members of the tribe who want to attend college or a technical school. Now all tribal members receive coverage in addition to housing and food assistance.
At the front desk of the health and fitness center. Money generated by the casino enabled the tribe to build 33 homes, a health and fitness center, a store, and tribal offices on the Reservation, specifically for tribal members.
Jamie Stuck, Tribal Chair, says the General Welfare Exclusion Act enabled sovereign nations like theirs to be able to provide government services in the manner of general welfare benefits.
“Any services provided through the Tribal Membership Benefit Program are services that are not deemed taxable or as earnable income,” Stuck says. “Tribal members could get financial assistance with utility payments, mortgage payments, car payments, or anything related to healthcare and education. That’s in addition to what we can get in per capita payments, which are quarterly distributions we have for tribal members to help with expenses, but you have to be an enrolled tribal member.”
Tribal members live all over the United States with about 75 percent living in the Great Lakes area.
Besides what it shares with its enrolled members, the tribe has become a major financial contributor to surrounding municipalities and the state of Michigan and through a compact between the NHBP and the state. That compact calls for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Pottawatami to distribute 2 percent of its annual slot machine revenue from FireKeepers Casino Hotel to the Local Revenue Sharing Board. The board uses these funds to reimburse local units of government and school districts for tax revenue that it can no longer collect because the casino complex and the Pine Creek Reservation are located on sovereign Tribal land making them tax-exempt.
To date, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Pottawatami has contributed more than $193 million to the Local Revenue Sharing Board since the opening of FireKeepers.
Though they are sharing the wealth now, the tribe had a lot to overcome on the way to the casino becoming a reality. Mackety-English says they faced a number of lawsuits and strong opposition to getting the entertainment venue up and running. The opposition went away, she says, when people saw the benefits the casino could provide.
“We’ve helped the community a lot by providing jobs and good benefits, but (the casino) also has helped the tribe move on from being poor to now seeing that we can make it. We can actually see light at the end of the tunnel and we have many things we never had before like housing and financial benefits,” she says.
Michael Mandoka, who was born and raised at Pine Creek and built the first house there in 1995, says he wanted to build a home in Pine Creek “before he got too old to walk.” Mackety-English convinced him to do just that even though back then the Reservation didn’t look as good as it does now.
He says that awareness of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Pottawatami and the Reservation deepened significantly when the casino opened.
“We started having history classes out here 15 years ago, right there in Athens,” says Dorie Rios, Tribal Council Vice Chair. “Once the casino came on board and the spotlight was on it, that was when everyone wanted to get to know us.”
Childhood memories of Pine Creek
As she looked out of the windows of a conference room inside the tribal offices, Mackety-English says the current view is vastly different than the one she, Mandoka and Gwynneth Nugent saw during their childhoods in Pine Creek.
The three have known each other all of their lives and gathered on a recent Friday to share their thoughts and recollections about life on the Reservation and how their lives changed after the opening of FireKeepers.
When they were young, they thought nothing of watching their parents fetch chickens that would be the focal point of Sunday dinners. Raised on the property in chicken coops, once killed the chickens were hung on clotheslines to bleed out.
Nugent, a third-generation tribal member, says she remembers going to get water from a pump. Even though they grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s, their homes had no electricity, heat, indoor plumbing or running water, and there were no televisions or telephones.
“We didn’t know what that stuff was,” Mackety-English says. “If you don’t know about it, you don’t miss it.”
Mandoka, who says he had difficulty sleeping as a child, used to walk into Nugent’s family home with its controlled chaos that included “bodies all over the place.” Nugent was one of 13 children who grew up in a two-bedroom house with a lean-to where they would gather to eat their meals.
“We slept wherever we could,” she says. “We had fun out there and were raggedy poor.”
Nugent says when she was old enough, she took babysitting jobs, but she often didn’t have transportation to get to those jobs. She says any cars that were on the Reservation were old and unreliable.
It was one of those cars that a group of adults and children piled into to travel to orchards in Traverse City where they would pick cherries alongside people who had come up from Mexico. But, there wasn’t enough room for Mandoka and his grandmother who ended up on a bus.
“My grandma took me along and everyone else went in a car and we had to take a bus. That bus stopped in Athens and would make what seemed like a million stops before we got to Traverse City,” Mandoka says.
His grandmother took care of him because his mother, who gave birth to him when she was 15-years-old, lacked the resources. He says his grandmother took on the responsibility for his upbringing even though she had serious health issues and no money to take care of them.
“We lived in a little shack with sheets hung on a wire that my grandma used to drag closed and go behind to wash up,” Mandoka says. “When I was a little boy, I would come in there and see my grandma behind those sheets and she was washing up and I remember seeing this belly and she had a big bump there. I never really paid attention to it because she always wore an apron and I thought it was normal.”
Years later he realized that his grandmother had lived with a ruptured abdomen for the better part of 25 years.
The tribes adults and children learned to improvise and work with what they had.
“We used to run up and down the roads with no shoes on,” Mackety-English says. “We chopped down limbs to use for hockey sticks and used stones for hockey pucks and played hockey on the river. We grew up together and made our own games.”
Their parents worked in low-wage jobs because that was what was available to them. Many of them worked at the former Pontone chicken processing plant in Athens while others worked for businesses such as the the former Jacobs Moving, which delivered appliances for Sears stores. These jobs were the only interaction older members of the tribe had outside of the Reservation.
Mackety-English says the only time people from surrounding communities came near the Reservation was to harass them or dump their garbage into Pine Creek.
Unlike their parents, children of the tribe were more involved in the outside world because they were attending Athens schools and many of the boys played sports and were considered standouts.
Mackety-English played in the school band and her brothers played football.
Nugent says she doesn’t think many of her tribal classmates liked going to school because of the “harassment we took. Our white classmates called us squaws and made Indian whooping sounds. Some took it worse than others.”
Mandoka, who played baseball, says he took the name calling and blatant bullying in stride even when the parents of a white, female classmate forbid their daughter from going on a date with him.
“I asked her out and she said she’d have to talk to her mom and dad. They said no because they didn’t want to mix races,” Mandoka says. “I couldn’t date anybody in Athens because my name was Mandoka.”
Despite the harassment and discrimination they encountered at school, Mackety-English says her generation represented the highest number of high school graduates up to that point.
Those diplomas represented a way out for many young tribe members who couldn’t wait to leave Pine Creek in search of better lives.
Mandoka joined the Air Force. Nugent left when she was 17, got married, moved west raised four children, and Mackety-English moved to Battle Creek where she worked at the former Community Hospital, and later moved to Arizona where she taught at a school for American Indian children.
Eventually, they all made their way back home. Nugent moved into a house at Pine Creek in 2004 and Mackety-English took a job with State Farm Insurance in Marshall, the city where she continues to live after retiring from that job.
Looking to the future
Rios says today they have a waiting list of between 20 to 30 Tribal members at any given time who want to live on or near the Reservation.
The Tribe recently purchased property on S Drive, less than one-quarter mile from the Reservation and will use that for additional housing to meet the demand, Stuck says.
Even though many things are better for the Tribe, Stuck says, “We still have a long way to go in order to sustain our nation for the future seven generations.”
The number “7” is significant in the tribe’s culture. When they make strategic plans they look ahead to include the next seven generations, Stuck says.
He cites the challenges Sovereign nations have with states and the Federal government particularly when it comes to violence against Native Americans and the prosecution of non-natives who commit crimes against native Americans on land owned by them. Too often, he says the state will come in and try to take jurisdiction of such cases because they don’t think tribes have a court system that will establish a fair trial.
The NHBP looks to its elders to resolve issues and also has its own police department which works closely with departments in neighboring jurisdictions, such as Emmett Township and the city of Battle Creek. Stuck says the NHBP has good relationships with its neighbors and has made an effort to give back to the community through its work with the Food Bank of Southcentral Michigan based in Battle Creek; Safe Place, a shelter in Battle Creek for women who are victims of abuse; and trainings offered on human trafficking.
“The success of the casino and the people benefitting from it allows us to build strong relationships and have influence in local communities and at the state level,” Stuck says. “But, it’s hard for many sovereign nations to trust local municipalities because of past history with other governments.”
That past history remains fresh in the minds of Tribal members who were separated from their families as children and put into government-run boarding schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their native language. Stuck says this was a systematic way for the government to break up the structural stability of Native American families.
“At one point, 25 percent of the population died during the boarding school era. My grandfather was in one of those boarding schools,” Stuck says.
Just recently, Rios says that she learned her mother also was in a boarding school.
“She told me that the first day there, they got a lye bath and their hair got chopped off. She always remembers being grabbed by the chin by the nuns who told her not to speak her native language,” Rios says. “They weren’t allowed to listen to music outside of church music. They stayed there until they were old enough to run away.
“This is historical trauma that is being passed on.”
Rios, who lives in Battle Creek, says many people thought that the “when the casino came along, all of our problems went away, and the money was supposed to take care of everything.
“We still have health disparities with diabetes, alcoholism, high blood pressure and mental health issues,” Rios says. “Even though we receive per capita payments, prior to the casino opening, we were dealing with a 45 percent poverty rate. With poverty comes all of these social issues.”
The ramifications of those issues continue.
While addressing these lingering traumas and memories of the wrongs done to them in the past, Stuck says the tribe is looking ahead and providing opportunities for its youngest members to learn about the culture, history, language, and customs.
“In 2019 we really expanded our cultural department here and also in Grand Rapids and Grand Haven for our members who live north of here,” Stuck says. “We have a historic preservation office, as well, and we are trying to figure out how to have more of an online presence so we are at the fingertips of members who live outside of Michigan and the United States.”
Mackety-English says most of the younger Tribal members have no idea of the struggles that previous generations had to go through to get where they are now.
“That’s why historic preservation is important to the NHBP,” Stuck says, “to make sure that our youth do not forget where they came from.”