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NATIVE TREATIES: Former Bay Cityan Paul Johnson to Open CMU Exhibit

"One Person Can Change Society," Says Clarke Library Director Frank Boles

February 11, 2016       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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(Right) Paul Johnson as a University of Michigan tackle; (Left), as a Native American leader.

Paul J. Johnson, a former Bay Cityan who launched a notable athletic career here and became a Native American student leader at the University of Michigan, will speak March 17 in Mt. Pleasant.

Johnson will open a new exhibit at the Clarke Historical Library entitled "Native Treaties - Shared Rights" in a talk at 7 p.m. in the Park Library Auditorium.

"The treaties signed between Tribal Governments and the United States Government are fundamental to understanding between Native Americans and the many groups who immigrated to North America after 1492," explains Frank Boles, Clarke Library director.

Perhaps most significant was the Washington Treaty of 1836, in which Ottawa and Chippewa Indians ceded 13.8 million acres, much of western and northern Michigan comprising 37 percent of the state's land area, to the federal government. In return, the federal government agreed to compensate the tribal signatories with five thousand dollars per annum, for the purpose of education, teachers, schoolhouses, and books in their own language, to be continued twenty years, and as long thereafter as Congress may appropriate. . ."

"The treaties are often complex and interpretation sometimes challenging," said Mr. Boles. "Paul Johnson is one of those individuals who has helped define the meaning of treaties in Michigan. In 1972, he filed a lawsuit claiming that members of the several Tribes were entitled by terms of the Treaty of Fort Meigs in 1817 to free education at the University of Michigan."

Johnson was graduated in 1964 from Bay City Central High, where he was a football star under famed coach Elmer Engel and was awarded a scholarship to the University of Michigan by Coach Bump Elliot. He played tackle and end from 1965 to 1967.

As a graduate student, Johnson organized a student association that sued the university over the Treaty of Fort Meigs of 1817. The lawsuit asked an accounting of the sale of land near Tecumseh, in southeastern Michigan, and contended that a trust should be established for the children of the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomy tribes who, the students argued were entitled to free tuition at the U-M.

The lawsuit was entitled "The Children of the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomy Tribes vs. the Regents of the University of Michigan." It cited terms of the Treaty of Fort Meigs of 1817 in which the tribes granted four and one-half sections of land to Father Gabriel Richard, founder of the Catholopistemiad (U-M) and St. Anne Church, Detroit, asserting the need to educate their children.

Of the outcome of the case, Mr. Boles said:

"Ultimately he lost the legal case, but the moral argument brought forward from the litigation led to the passage of the Michigan Native American Tuition Waiver program in 1976. One person can change society. Mr. Johnson's story is one example of such change."

The trial court judge in Washtenaw County, Edward J. Deake, held in 1979 that the treaty did not create a constructive trust between the tribes and the university as the Indian students contended. That opinion was upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

By virtue of his activism, Johnson became a leader in the Indian community and today he is executive director of the Indian Education Association in Haslett as well as a self-employed consultant. He was a founder the Chippewa Tribal Community College in Mt. Pleasant.


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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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