In Memory of George E. Bennett: A Quiet Giant Among American Indian Leaders


Commentary
George Bennett (Ottawa)  (1924 - 2014)

George Bennett (Ottawa)
(1924 – 2014)

Due to Michigan’s wintry weather I was not able to attend the memorial service for my friend, George E. Bennett, hosted by his tribe, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB) on Saturday.

George E. Bennett was the former chairman of GTB. He served as chairman at two different times – just after the tribe received its reaffirmation from the federal government in 1980; then again from 1996 – 2000. In addition to being tribal chairman, he held many positions during his life, including serving as the executive director of the Michigan Commission on Indian Affairs.

Chairman Bennett passed away last month, on his 86th birthday on December 9, 2014, and was buried in Granite Falls, Minnesota, where he retired.

He was a quiet giant among Michigan Indian leaders. I call him quiet because he did not possess a pompous bone in his body, but carried himself with true dignity that other tribal leaders could emulate.

I first met him when he served as the executive director of the Michigan Commission on Indian Affairs when I was still a teenager. My mother, who was working for Michigan State University Extension Services at the time, had me tag along her to a meeting. She introduced me to Mr. Bennett inside the Michigan’s State Capitol building in Lansing. I remember him looking distinguished wearing a white shirt and tie, blue blazer and grey slacks. I remember being proud of an American Indian working in Lansing on behalf of Michigan Indians.

Later in life, I had the privilege of working with him on a couple of projects. By the time, I worked with him, he was no longer the tribal chairman—though he was serving as a tribal councilor. During the time I was around him, he shared rich stories of struggles and triumphs that confronted him as a tribal leader.

His stories were the kind you share with others. Last month, I shared a story with two colleagues that Chairman Bennett told me about ten years ago.

The story went back to during his time he served as tribal chairman. The Grand Traverse Band moved ahead with opening the Turtle Creek Casino against the wishes of the State of Michigan and the federal government, which resulted in the U.S. Attorney bringing a lawsuit against the Tribe to have the casino closed down because the land had not been put into trust by the US Department of the Interior. Chairman Bennett told me he relied on the Treaty of 1836, which ceded lands to the United States from the Tribe, to govern his decision when GTB opened the casino. After a lengthy legal litigation that included a trial in federal district court, the Tribe prevailed.

Recalling the case years later to me, Chairman Bennett—with a smile on his face and glimmer in his eyes–summed it up: “$500 million later, I was proven right in court because I knew our history.”

On the evening I told my colleagues that story, I learned he had died earlier in the day.

After he passed away, his wife, Lucy, remembered one of Chairman Bennett’s most memorable quotes: “A single branch is easy to break, but when we bundle many together, we are strong.” She recalled, as chairman of the Grand Traverse Band, he kept a bundle of sticks six to eight inches long and bound together with a piece of leather on his desk.

Chairman Bennett’s bundle of sticks was symbolic of strength he wished for his tribe.

The lesson I take away from his bundle is if we as American Indian people bind together in common goals, we can defeat the numeous problems that confront us.

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