Native Americans from across Michigan rallied in Lansing last week in an unsuccessful attempt to halt Gov. John Engler’s elimination of the state’s Indian Affairs Commission.
An executive order signed by Engler abolished the 34-year-old commission Monday, Oct. 18, transferring its responsibilities to the Department of Civil Rights.
The commission investigated problems common to the state’s Indians, including employment, civil rights, housing, health and education. Most of its focus was directed toward the needs of nonreservation urban and rural natives, estimated to be 87 percent of the Native American population of Michigan.
By law, the Legislature had 60 days to overturn the executive order Engler issued in late August. Thirty state representatives introduced a resolution in September opposing the order, but the resolution languished in the committee on House Oversight and Operations. The deadline to overturn Engler’s action was Monday.
"It’s just sitting there. The chair doesn’t want to schedule a hearing," Rep. Lynne Martinez, D-Lansing, told the protesters. "They’re not in the business of embarrassing the governor."
Susan Shaefer, Engler’s deputy press secretary, said the governor’s action was justified because of the commission’s lack of activity over the past few years. She said that no Indian programs will be eliminated, and that the state’s American Indians will be better served as a result of the change.
"This will allow the Native Americans more direct access to the governor himself without the bureaucratic red tape," said Shaefer.
Critics of Engler’s action say abolition of the commission will make it more difficult for Native Americans living off reservations to obtain help from the state.
"Engler doesn’t understand the issues that Indians face living off the reservation," said Rep. Julie Dennis, D-Muskegon. "He thinks the casinos are the answer and they’re not. The Indians of Michigan are at the mercy of the governor, and with this executive order he shows he has no interest in the health or well-being of the Indians."