July 11 2012 12:00 AM

Meet Aaron Payment, the recently elected, populist chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians


The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians recently elected a man who threatened to put a proposed casino in Lansing on hold because potential revenues weren’t specifically dedicated to various tribal services.

Aaron Payment has always been a supporter of the casino project, he says, but such is his populist nature to represent the interests of all 40,000 Sault Tribe members — even if it means calling for a vote of the people to make sure they’re on board with their government’s plans.

“I don’t see myself as a radical person,” he said in an interview last week. “I don’t see myself as an anti-establishment person. I do see myself as someone who listens to the needs of the people.”

Payment’s motive all along was to draw up a revenue-sharing plan that he believed was more equitable to all members of the Sault Tribe. It would have called for a dedicated percentage of revenue for the tribe’s Elder Fund; college scholarships and job training; K-12 incentives, like cash for grades and good attendance; expanding and stabilizing the tribe’s service area in the Upper Peninsula; expanding services beyond the reservation; and other accounts for economic development and paying off debt.

To the delight of Lansing officials and Chairman Joe Eitrem, the referendum failed. But late last month, Payment defeated Eitrem 56 percent to 44 percent. Payment believes his efforts at least caused the Tribal Council to dedicate 15 percent of net revenues to education and health care, should there be a Lansing casino.

“I was asking the question: Lansing gets a promise, why not us?” he said. “The Council came back with a proposal to add 15 percent of revenue obligated toward elders and education. They sweetened the deal to get the members to support it because they knew a referendum was coming.”

Payment, who is 46, grew up in the time when the Sault Tribe was fighting to become federally recognized. It was a time when the tribe was located in the city limits of Sault Ste. Marie, “In a community where we didn’t have sanitation, didn’t have city water or sewers. We were in city limits but denied basic access to sanitation.”

The tribe’s fighting the city, combined with the efforts of tribal leaders to gain recognition, had a lasting impact on Payment — and one he carried with him in his recent election.

“I got to witness first-hand the mobilization of people — their mobilization to stand up and say we’re human beings. We’re people. We deserve to have the basic quality of life and we’re going to advocate for that,” he said. “To me, growing up in the ‘70s already, witnessing that instilled in me a sense that we could be the ruler of our own destiny.

“It seems like in the last decade we kind of lost that sense of mobilization. I think this campaign really crystallized that — that the people should be driving the government, not some separate body.”

Payment served as tribal chairman from 2004 to 2008. He took office at a time when the tribe was struggling to succeed with a Detroit casino in Greektown that ultimately failed. In late summer 2007, Payment said he took part in “preliminary discussions” with members of Mayor Virg Bernero’s cabinet about a potential casino deal. When he returned home to tell his Tribal Council about it, Payment said some were “irate” — including Eitrem — that he would enter into discussions without first consulting with the Council. The Council “told us to cease and desist, so we did,” he said.

Payment, who was sworn into office on Monday, recently finished his doctorate degree in educational leadership from Central Michigan University. He’s known Bernero for about 10 years, he said, after meeting him at a conference on Mackinac Island and described the relationship as “positive.”

“Make no mistake: When it comes down to what is my interest as a tribal leader and what is his interest as a city, we’re both going to be in it trying to protect our own individual interests. To the extent that we can align those interests and his voting constituency and my voting constituency can benefit, then we’ll be all for that,” he said.

Payment’s opponents have described him as overly political — a lightning rod — looking to stir up trouble.

“If drawing the lightning gets the voice heard, then I’m guilty,” he said, before reading a quotation by former tribal chairman Joseph K. Lumsden: “I hope that in time the controversies will pass,  but people need to know there are Indian people here and they have to deal with it.”