Michigan Mayor Denies and Apologies for Racist Remarks

Gale Courey Toensing
2/1/12

Controversy over off-reservation gaming sparks alleged racist remarks

Off reservation casinos have been hotly debated for years, but a recent incident in Michigan may be the first time ever that the issue resulted in allegations of racism.

The story ends (perhaps) on January 30, 2012, when Lansing, Michigan Mayor Virg Bernero denied that remarks he had made the previous week were racist and offensive even though the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and James Nye, a citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said they were.

"My passionate support for Lansing and our casino project may have gotten the better of me, but none of my remarks were directed toward Native Americans, and nothing I said can fairly be construed as a racial slur,” Bernero said in a statement released by his office on January 30, the Detroit Free Press reported. “I make no apologies for using strong language against our opponents … but I do offer my heartfelt and sincere apology to any and all who were offended by my choice of words,” Bernero said.

Bernero’s “our casino” remark refers to the partnership between the City of Lansing and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians to build a proposed $245 million casino in the city’s downtown area. Bernero announced the deal on January 23, according to MLive.  Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette opposed the plan immediately. “Michigan has enough casinos and any expansion would outweigh the benefits,” he said. A number of Michigan tribes are opposed to off-reservation casinos, including the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian. The Gun Lake Tribe and the Nottawaseppi also pointed out that the proposed Lansing casino would violate the exclusivity zone provisions of their tribal-state gaming compacts.

Bernero’s controversial remarks were made on January 26 at a breakfast fundraiser for himself at the city-owned Lansing Center. In a joint statement after the event, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe called on Bernero to publicly apologize for his “racial slurs toward Native Americans…witnessed by hundreds of people.”

The nations said Bernero appeared with a bull’s-eye on his back and said he was the target of “bows and arrows” for championing the casino proposal. “Bernero repeatedly used profanity, and racial slurs, in describing the controversy that ensued after he and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians announced plans for an off-reservation casino at the Lansing Center, 287 miles from that Tribe’s government offices. Parents with children in attendance were visibly upset by Bernero’s behavior,” the statement said.

Nye, a spokesman for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band, said he did not attend the fundraiser but was told by a number of people that Bernero targeted him personally and called him “Chief Chicken Little.” Nye said he was “deeply offended” by Bernero’s remarks. “There’s been a lot of debate over off-reservation casinos, but I’ve never before been personally attacked. We should be able to have differences of opinion without resorting to this level of offensiveness, but it seems that’s the level of public discourse these days. It’s a shame,” Nye told ICTMN. Nye noted that Bernero was the Democratic nominee for governor in the 2010 election. He was defeated by Governor Rick Snyder.

Dennis Kequom, Chief of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, called on Bernero to issue a public apology, take sensitivity training, and refrain from racially-charged language in the public discourse, according to the tribes’ statement. “Racial slurs by government officials against Native Americans conjure images of a bygone era of destructive policies that resulted in centuries of genocide and poverty,” Kequom said.

Kequom also called on “fellow chairmen across Indian county”—including Sault Tribe Chairman Joe Eitrem—to condemn Bernero’s “vile remarks. A racial slur is made against not one of us, but all of us,” Kequom said.

Eitrem, however, said the allegations of racism against Bernero were politically-motivated attacks by casino opponents. "We have been in close negotiations with Mayor Bernero for about two years, and he has always been respectful of us and our Native culture. I would ask people to see this episode for what it is: It is nothing more than the operators of other casinos desperately trying to stop a new competitor and thousands of new jobs and economic benefits for the Lansing region and our tribe," Eitrem said in a statement.

The Saginaw Chippewa and Huron tribes said in their joint statement that they object to the Sault Tribe’s Lansing casino proposal because its land claims legal theory would lead to unlimited off-reservation casinos and “abolish the regulatory structure of Indian gaming which is essential to its continued viability.” They said the Sault Tribe would also breach the tribal-state compact requirement to obtain a written agreement by all federally recognized tribes prior to seeking an off-reservation casino.

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