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About 30 Michigan residents and University of Michigan students gathered in the Pond Room of the Michigan Union to attend the Indigenous People’s Day Symposium Monday evening. Titled “The Rise and Fall of the Ogemakaan,” the symposium featured Matthew L. M. Fletcher, the Harry Burns Hutchins Collegiate Professor of Law and LSA professor of American Culture, who spoke about the legal and political philosophy of modern Anishinaabe tribes. 

The symposium was organized by the University of Michigan chapter of Minorities and Philosophy (MAP), a student-run organization that aims to address structural injustices and remove barriers for marginalized groups in philosophy. The event began with Rackham student Margot Witte, one of the organizers of the event, acknowledging that the University stands on land that was given by the Anishinaabeg tribes.

The Anishinaabe is a collective name for groups of indigenous people who live in the United States and Canada and include tribes such as the Odawa, Bodewadmi and Ojibwe communities. 

Fletcher spoke about his research on the rise and fall of the Ogemakaan, a term coined to describe “artificial leaders” within the Anishinaabe tribes who encourage hierarchy and political opportunism rather than prioritizing the interests of their constituents. According to Fletcher, the Anishinaabeg people elect their leaders — called the Ogemaag — to act as true representatives of their people. He said he learned about Ogemakaan by reading work from other experts who study Native Americans in the United States.

“So, if you add this -kaan suffix to Ogmaag, what it meant according to this phrase book was ‘artificial,’” Fletcher said. “It said artificial leader, and then in parentheses it said ‘the elected official’ basically and then fake.”

Fletcher, a University alum, is connected to Michigan’s Native American community as a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa Chippewa Indians. Fletcher also sits on four Anishinaabe appellate courts. As a tribal judge, Fletcher said while some tribes allow the U.S. Department of Interior to oversee their court system, the Grand Traverse Band does not.

“(Being a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa Chippewa Indians) gives me an opportunity as a judge to think about (broader U.S.) law in context of Anishinaabe law,” Fletcher said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been a tribal judge for 20 years, and … I’m trying to philosophize about these things.” 

Fletcher explained that Anishinaabe tribes are divided into seven clans, each based on an animal. 

“We have a clan system that is rooted in animals,” Fletcher said. “We have an enormous amount of respect for animals. We want to be like them in some respects. So we aspire to be like (them and) we are assigned at some point to be a clan.”

Fletcher said while elected officials in Anishinaabe tribes face similar challenges to other federal, state and local elected officials, there are greater levels of accountability and leaders rise to power in different ways.

“The amount of accountability that these elected officials have in tribal government is insane,” Fletcher said. “They are not co-opted by the oil and gas industry or the prison industrial complex. They’re not co-opted by any of that stuff. They’re co-opted by their cousins. … They’re elevated often by the size of their families. They’re elevated by the influence that they themselves have over a relatively small number of people.”

Fletcher said tribal governments are unique in that tribal leaders are often not elected because they’re talented or well-educated but because of the promises they make to the people they represent and serve.

“Tribal leaders are not necessarily elected because they’re any good at anything,” Fletcher said. “They’re not often educated in the same way that a lot of the bureaucrats are. Often they have great experiences at certain things, but that’s not really why they’re elected. Often they’re elected because they have big families or because maybe they’re good public speakers, or more so because they make big promises.”

Fletcher said the beginning of the Ogemakaan downfall seemed to stem from corruption in the political system after Congress passed the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which established regulations for gaming on tribal lands. Fletcher explained the legislation allowed Native American tribes to individually send funds to individual members when there is a surplus in casino revenue.

“As soon as people in Michigan started to realize tribal members (and) their casinos were making a little bit of money and (that) you get to do a revenue allocation ordinance and pay out some of that money per cap(ita), that’s when tribal politics at Grand Traverse band and probably every tribe in the state of Michigan went totally to shit,” Fletcher said.

Attendees also had the opportunity to ask questions about the Anishinaabe governing philosophy. Some questions revolved around the gender representation of elected leaders.

“Traditionally, (women) were at least equal to the dudes, so to speak, in any law,” Fletcher said. “There’s a tradition of that, I think there’s probably a 60-40 split (between) men and women (in elected positions).”

Rackham student Gabrielle Kerbel, another MAP organizer, said she was most interested in what Fletcher had to say about the increased corruption after casinos brought more money into the Anishinaabe tribes. 

“’I’m really interested in why (Fletcher) thinks this corruption came about and how he thinks it can go away,” Kerbel said. “Everything was new to me. So it was wonderful, informative.”

Rackham student Lianghua Zhou, a MAP co-organizer, said events like the Indigenous People’s Day Symposium are aimed to boost philosophical education and try to get more people from different backgrounds to become involved in philosophy. 

“This is a great opportunity for us to learn from a professor like Matthew and the kinds of things that he is focusing on his research, showing that there are actually a broader range of philosophical questions that we can ask and that we can resolve to see if we can propose some good theories on them, et cetera,” Zhou said. “I think this will be an example for showing that, actually, this is a valuable inquiry and we should pay attention to them.”

Daily News Reporter Rachel Mintz can be reached at mintzrac@umich.edu.