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Burt Lake Indian Village, 1890, ten years before the tragic burnout that left 23 families homeless.

117 YEAR TRAVESTY: Cheboygan Burt Lake Indian Band Sues for Justice

Descendants of "Burnout" of 1900 Now Have Help Battling the Government

February 18, 2017       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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(NOTE: While researching a new book, "ABOVE THE 44TH PARALLEL: Legends and Lore of Northern Michigan," the author discovered breaking news about one of Michigan's most dramatic stories of white man's treachery and government mismanagement leading to human suffering. While the story will appear in the forthcoming book, the following advance report is exclusive to


The Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are hoping a federal court in Washington, D.C., will grant them justice for theft of lands stolen 117 years ago in the infamous "Burt Lake Burnout" in 1900 in Cheboygan County.

The tribe's lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior was filed Jan. 9 in federal court in Washington, D.C. The timing may indicate haste to avoid any changes under the new Donald Trump administration, that started with his inauguration Jan. 20.

Former Member of Congress Bart Stupak is one of three attorneys representing the group, once known as "the Cheboygan Band," as their attempts to reclaim their Indian Point property, and their tribal heritage, continue despite seemingly endless opposition by the U.S. government.

In 2013, Richard Wiles, a researcher for the Petoskey Library, published a comprehensive review of the case in the Mackinac Journal. Wiles' article states: "The depopulation and dispersion of the Burt Lake Indians forms one of the darkest pages of American history and proves the utter failure and weakness of the government's Indian policy in the past."

Wrote Mike Norton of the Traverse City Record-Eagle ion 2000: "John McGinn was a timber speculator with friends in high places, and he had his eye on the Point. Using loopholes in the state's land acquisition laws, he "bought" the land at a tax sale in 1898, and on Oct. 15, 1900, while most of the male villagers were in town getting their paychecks cashed - he moved in with Cheboygan County Sheriff Fred Ming.

"Herding the elders, women, and children out into the cold autumn rain, they ordered everyone off, removed their household goods, doused their houses with kerosene, set them on fire."

Only three cabins, and the native church built in 1838 by Bishop Frederic Baraga remained.

William Sydow, a farm boy who was 15 at the time of the incident, told the Detroit News in 1969: "The women and children sat in the road and watched their homes burn down. There was nothing they could do. Their men were away. We thought it was all wrong. But we didn't think there was a thing we could do."

Some of the members of the 23 dispossessed families walked 30 miles to Cross Village and others settled with relatives in the area. Their descendants have since futilely petitioned the government to gain tribal recognition and reclaim their land.

The lawsuit targets officials of the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which in 2004 posted on the Federal Register a blatant manifesto entitled "Proposed Finding Against Federal Acknowledgement of the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Inc."

The posting amounted to a decision announced before the fact, or before a proper hearing, although it speciously stated challenges would be accepted for up to 180 days.

The government seems to have spent more time and money splitting hairs and micro-manipulating flawed concepts of Indian descendants' trees than rational consideration in its tortuous justification for disapproval.

The government's stance seems to key on this statement: "Just 46 percent of the petitioner's 490 members descend from the historical Cheboygan band, and 48 percent descend from John B. Vincent (1816-1903). Although Indians at Burt Lake were acknowledged as a tribe as recently as 1917, most of the petitioner's members do not descend from the previously acknowledged entity."

That appears to be a bald-faced acknowledgment that the 46 percent of the Indian band have no rights at all, according to the BIA.

"The Burt Lake Band is currently caught in a clear-cut example of arbitrary and capricious behavior by the federal agency charged with handling the United States' relations with sovereign Tribes," states a complaint filed by attorneys for Venable P.L.C. on January 9. The BIA's capricious "non-decision" was based primarily on the established historical fact that Burt Lake Band's lands were violently stolen from it."

"The old St. Mary's Cemetery is the only remaining sign of a village that served as the social, religious and cultural center of the small Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians," wrote Norton, commenting:

"These were no "backward savages;" they were hard-working Catholics who farmed, fished, and drew paychecks as lumberjacks and millwrights for local logging operations.

"And this land was theirs, not by some vague aboriginal right or a promise from far-away Washington. They had bought and paid for it themselves under the white man's own laws.

"In 1836, the federal government had promised them a 1,000-acre reservation around Burt Lake; when it failed to deliver on that promise, the Indians pooled their money and bought Indian Point for themselves, deeding much of it to the state of Michigan in the belief that they were creating a tax-free reservation."

Developers changed the name to Colonial Point and today the area is populated with upscale homes on tree-shaded streets that reflect the prosperous residents who have, over many years, displaced the natives.

Pure Michigan's website blithely advertises "Colonial Point Memorial Forest/Chaboiganing Nature Preserve," touting it as a place for middle-class pursuits like trail hiking. There is no historical marker noting the terrible events of more than a century ago or the Indian heritage of the site.

The Pure Michigan website boasts: "Acreage: 484 acres combined. Colonial Point is entirely wooded and includes the largest old-growth red-oak stand in the northern Lower Peninsula, with trees up to 150 years old. Chaboiganing Preserve is a mixture of woodlands and open fields. Over 2-1/2 miles of easy trails for hiking and skiing. These preserves are located on a peninsula on the west side of Burt Lake."


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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
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