May 5 2010 12:00 AM

For James McClurken, uncovering history can change present-day laws

One Michigan author who retells the early tales of Drummond Island in the book “Islands of the Manitou” concludes that “the signing of the Indian Treaties, while good for the United States did not benefit the Indian nations.”

And so it wasn’t just "Hiawatha" author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who appropriated from the Indians.

Lansing author and ethnohistorian James M. McClurken has spent his entire professional life helping Indian tribes col the the concludes Treaties, not author ethnohistorian entirelect on that debt by researching federal acknowledgment petitions, membership and enrollment issues for newly recognized tribes and a variety of other treaty rights involving land, hunting, timber, mineral and fishing rights.

McClurken most recently was honored for his book “Our People, Our Journey,” a history of the Little River Band of the Ottawa Indians, published by the Michigan State University Press and selected as a Michigan Notable Book for 2010. Although the book focuses on the history of the Little River Band of Manistee and its struggles to preserve its heritage over several hundred years, it could be the history of many of the indigenous tribes of North America.

As a college requirement McClurken had conducted an oral history of the Ottawa Indians in the Grand Rapids area for the public library, and later he undertook a much more sophisticated oral history of sharecroppers in Mississippi. But the turning point for McClurken came when he watched the Indian fishing rights trial that was argued in Federal District court in Grand Rapids from the mid-to-late 1970s.

At the trial he also became acquainted with some Indian leaders who would later hire him to do the often tedious and difficult research involved in proving tribal rights.

He said he began working with the Ottawa Indians because they wanted more than recognition from the federal government. Due to a series of complex issues and common federal practice, the tribe had lost federal recognition as a tribe, which had dated back to treaties of the 1800s.

“The tribes would not beg the Interior (Department) for recognition. Pride and the right to govern was more important,” McClurken said.

After nearly 15 years the two tribes he represented — the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians — were federally recognized by Congress in 1994.

He then began representing numerous other tribes in Michigan and across the United States in various tribal rights issues.

Along the way, McClurken began collecting photographs of Indian tribal members, cataloging them and using the photographs to prove an Indian tribe’s attachment to the land and the tribe’s cultural identity.

“The photographs were of people living, and it helped the tribe come alive," he said. "In 1987, no one knew what Indians looked like.”

His efforts also had the simple outcome of helping members find their relatives — “The book helped bind the community together” — and helping to put tribes in context.

“Everyone thinks (all Indians) are owners of casinos — they are not rich.”

McClurken graduated from the William James College at Grand Valley State University in 1978 and received his masters and Ph.D. from MSU. In 1988, he founded McClurken Research. He is often called to offer expert testimony to Congress and the courts.

McClurken’s book is not what you would expect, considering it began as a research document to support legislative action. It is an extremely readable but documented history (legal though it may be) of a people and their struggle to survive. In his preface, McClurken writes that “the text is supplemented with images and depictions of the people who lived through the events described in the historical manuscripts.”

He conducts his research at numerous libraries, including the National Archives and the Archives of Michigan, always seeking out original sources.

Early in the book McClurken attacks the myth regarding the cultural disintegration of the Michigan Ottawas; he undoubtedly proves that the Little River Ottawa Band is a “living society.”

By the time the tribe first had contact with white settlers in 1615, the Ottawa were already prodigious traders living in permanent villages all along the Great Lakes, including on the banks of the Grand River near Grand Rapids. Economic necessity forced them to migrate to Manistee later on.

The book is an elegant scrapbook of Ottawa life, including photographs dating back to the Civil War. Scores of family photographs depict the real, not mythical, life of the Ottawa. But more important, the book is the history of a people within the complex labyrinth of tribal rights and treaties that continue to this day.

His history is especially telling when he describes how Indian agents explained how band members refused to adopt a new form of agriculture that would have had them cutting down maple groves.

McClurken writes: “They wanted to save these groves so that their children could make sugar.”

In part due to the research provided by McClurken and the tenacity of the tribe, on Sept. 21, 1994, both the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians were able to regain their indigenous identity. The Ottawas held their first Reaffirmation Feast on Oct. 16 of that year in the Knights of Columbus Hall in Manistee.