Non-profit organization arranges trips to attend redistribution hearings to provide platform for Native American voices

Community redistribution is a series on 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 by funding from the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

After 80 Michigan residents appeared before the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to comment on draft maps released by the commission last October, the in-person portion of Lansing’s public hearing, it seemed, was over. 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, October 21 at the Lansing Center, one of five such hearings statewide. The number of hearings was contentious; what was discussed, even more. Initial plans called for nine public hearings, but delays in the redistribution process have reduced that number to five. The subject at hand? The recently released draft maps 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 wondering if anyone was listening in the first place.

Participants, whether present in person or virtually, each had 90 seconds to comment. the draft maps published by the MICRC before the commission proceeds to the next step in the map development process. Sometimes it takes a monk’s level of patience to attend audiences like these. Over the hours, some will say they can get a bit, let’s say, monotonous.

There was some lull as the commission entered the virtual comment period that day, said Joan Gustafson, head of external affairs for the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA). Gustafson was there to observe the proceedings; the deputy has been very active in organizing the state’s “communities of interest” throughout this year’s redistribution process. But after a few comments were delivered remotely, the audience was shot in the arm as a new group arrived to deliver their comments in person. Joan Gustafson, Head of External Affairs for the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA)

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

“Meredith and about a dozen people walked into the center of Lansing, many of them in traditional dress, and they all walked in and all of a sudden the commissioners and everybody over there was like: ” What ? Hello everybody ! Gustafson recalls. As the deadline for in-person comments had not yet been reached, the committee gave the floor to the group.

“They called them, one by one, and they each testified in a mixture of their native language and English. It was extremely powerful. Everyone was suddenly paying attention. Even the commissioners thanked them at the end.

Recognize tribal sovereignty

For Meredith Kennedy, getting people’s attention was essential.

“Even though it was redistribution, it was even more of a way for us to say: Number one, you are on our land, and you should include us in everything. And number two, we’re everywhere. We are in all the voting districts. We are in each voting block. We are everywhere. And remember, while you’re here, we want you to live up to our values, ”Kennedy said.

These two points inform a large part of the Miigwech, Inc. mission. Community outreach and programming are two others.

The organization was formed earlier this year when a neighbor’s childcare business was at risk of shutting down. It was, Kennedy says, the only child care option in his community, the closure of which could trigger a domino effect of economic hardship for families who depend on it. Kennedy called, eventually getting a grant from the Jewish Nonprofit Federation. Miigwech, Inc. was formed to accept this grant and pass it on to the community. The non-profit organization now runs several community programs, including those for 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 itself, says Kennedy. Formed first as a nonprofit organization through the Tribal Code under the Waganakising Odawak 2003-07 Act, Miigwech, Inc. would later be recognized as 501 (c) (3) by the IRS. It’s a big deal, as Kennedy says.

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

The fact that the Michigan Nonprofit invited Miigwech, Inc. to be part of a cohort of 38 nonprofits in their own redistribution efforts, and even before they were recognized as a legitimate nonprofit by the federal government, a served to convince Kennedy that the program was worth considering. The MNA cohort of 38 nonprofit organizations was organized to support underrepresented communities in state redistribution efforts, helping “communities of interest,” a phrase in the new law, to develop policies. maps and political narratives in hopes of influencing the MICRC in their political map design. to treat.

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

Miigwech, Inc. organized trips to three of the five public hearings to 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 tribal code nonprofit can be seen as a “victory.” But given the state’s redistribution efforts, getting Michigan’s Native American communities to recognize state and federal governments as legitimate in the first place is a whole different matter in and of itself.

“A lot of people don’t even realize that some people in my community don’t recognize your government. They see them here as invaders. They broke treaties, ”says Kennedy. “You want to achieve the aboriginal vote, or the aboriginal voice – remember some of us don’t even recognize that you are here as legitimate. “

Inviting the MP to the group prior to its recognition by the IRS allowed Miigwech, Inc. to participate. Internal conversations across Miigwech, Inc. have helped decide that while they may be wary, if not downright dismissive, of state redistribution efforts, their inclusion in the cohort could provide Miigwech, Inc. with a platform. an important form for the state’s large and diverse Aboriginal population.

Bob Chunn, president and co-founder of RelA2ve, an Ann Arbor-based tech company, worked hand-in-hand with the MNA and its nonprofit coalition, guiding them through the redistribution 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 called on the state to recognize the existence of Native Americans as much as political borders, he said.
One of the “community of interest” maps submitted to the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission by Miigwech, Inc.
“They said, this is where the indigenous people live,” more than anything else, says Chunn. As the maps show, Native Americans live in our the biggest cities and population centers, and not just rural communities in central and northern Michigan. As Kennedy said earlier, “We are everywhere.”

When asked by members of his own community why they should participate, Kennedy replied, “Number one, we need to have a voice. Second, we have to be many so that people realize that we are 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 comment on draft maps released by the MICRC. And while they were there to talk about redistribution, something more important was happening as well.

“We came as a group, because not only do we comment on the cards, but we also comment that we are still there. And you must always include us. You don’t see us every day but we are there every day. So I pointed out that our group. We all deposited together, we stood together, we said what we had to say, and then we all left together, ”says Kennedy.

“When you have between 20 and 30 people get up, come in together and leave together, it’s an impact. “

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