Northern Michigan Tribal Chairman Derek Bailey Runs for Congress

Northern Michigan: As tribal chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Derek Bailey made a name for himself as an independent thinker who can forge consensus between his tribal members and the broader community. Now he says he’s ready to take that talent to Washington.

On the morning that he announced his candidacy to become the United States representative of Michigan's 1st Congressional District, Derek Bailey, tribal chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, based in Leelanau County’s Peshawbestown, stood in his Escanaba hotel room and brushed his hip-length black hair into a neat ponytail held by five descending hair bands. Next, he trimmed out his 6-foot-3-plus frame in a neat black suit, pale blue dress shirt and red tie. Handsome, yes, but the look expresses Bailey's style in a broader sense. It's a statement of his philosophy, his way, a deeply genuine fusion of get-the-job-done professionalism and heartfelt commitment to his Native American identity.

Bailey, a Democrat, logged an exhausting 350 miles in his 2005 Saturn Vue on that first day of October, a trek that took him past three Great Lakes and miles of autumn hued forests, orchards and vineyards—and still he’d only just touched the skin of this, the second largest Congressional district east of the Mississippi. The 1st district has always covered the sprawling, sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, and thanks to recent redistricting, it will take in most of the Northern Lower beginning with the 2012 election, as it did from 1992 to 2002, when Democrat Bart Stupak represented it.

In Escanaba, Sault Ste. Marie and Traverse City, the candidate, who, if elected would be only the ninth Native American Congressman in our nation’s history, announced his candidacy and described his values in his easy no-notes style, then talked about his qualifications: a record that rests largely on his three-and-half-year term governing his own sovereign nation—i.e., the Grand Traverse Band, which like other federally recognized tribes, is considered a semi-autonomous government within the United States.

Like any candidate, Bailey has his challenges to overcome. No doubt there will be people who wonder about the possibility of a dual allegiance—to both his tribe and the United States. And even when that is not an issue, Bailey will obviously have to work harder to explain where he comes from than either of his opponents, Democrat Gary McDowell, a former state representative, and Congressman Dan Benishek, a Republican and the 1st district incumbent. He’ll have other obstacles, too, Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics points out, among them name recognition and the fact that he is not from the Upper Peninsula, as are McDowell and Benishek. “They don’t like to vote for trolls [the U.P. nickname for people who live below the Mackinac Bridge] up there,” Ballenger says.

But the candidate has a strategy, and it begins in the district’s Indian Country, which includes eight of the state’s 12 reservations. That's one reason why the night after he declared his candidacy, Bailey headed back north, to dance—clad in his traditional ribbon shirt, beaded yoke and double-eagle bustle—in a Sault Ste. Marie Rotary event. On stage with his stepdaughters, Dannis and Panika, he stepped through the ancient Sneak Up dance, moving in his beaded moccasins to the slow build of a drumbeat before finishing in a burst of energy, as in a hunt, Bailey explains.

The dance is not a half-bad metaphor for the way the candidate hopes to go on to target and rally voters in the populous Traverse City region—where this suit-and-braid guy who rides an American-made Victory Kingpin motorcycle to work has turned a lot of unlikely heads.

Count among them Ryan Matuzak, President of the Grand Traverse Area Sport Fishing Association. Matuzak’s association with Bailey is particularly poignant, as there was a time just decades ago when sports fishermen in Northern Michigan feuded, to the point of shots being fired, with Native American gill-netters. But now both groups have a common enemy, invasive species, specifically Asian carp. Bailey has led the band to file suit, along with five other Great Lakes states and Canada, to force Illinois to close the lock at Lake Michigan to prevent the fish from getting in from the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. In the process of working together on the issue, Matuzak has come to admire the tribal chairman. “He talked to me about the [Native American] seven generations idea and preserving resources. It really struck a chord with me,” Matuzak says. That’s the sort of sentiment that many people come away with after working with Bailey. It’s fairly obvious that he is a capable administrator, working with his tribal council to juggle the demands of the 4,000-member band, two casinos and the behemoth Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, while nearly erasing the tribal deficit. Moreover, as tribal chairman, Bailey has proven capable of working at  the federal level—at ease enough to have garnered an appointment on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, and just recently to have cemented a precedent-setting memorandum of understanding with the United States Coast Guard that will, among other things, allow tribal resource personnel to board Coast Guard helicopters for resource management purposes.

Like the other candidates, Bailey talks about creating jobs, austerity measures to trim the budget and the importance of protecting the Great Lakes. But it is his ability to transcend divisions that has attracted a wide range of people to his campaign—including business leader Ross Biederman, owner of a group of Northern Michigan radio stations, including conservative News Talk 580. Biederman introduced Bailey as a candidate on October 1 in Traverse City, and like Bailey’s campaign manager Christine Stalsonburg, is an independent.

Perhaps bridging differences comes naturally to Bailey because he is a product of two distinct ethnicities. Bailey’s mother is second-generation Norwegian, and though her son doesn’t look very Nordic, know that he can roll out vowels worthy of a cream of Campbell’s soup hot dish (“You’ve got to go long on the O’s,” he says, rounding his lips). His Bailey roots date back to a Métis fur trading family whose influence once echoed from Mackinac Island to the Grand River and beyond. On his father's side Bailey is descended from an Ottawa chief who signed the Treaty of 1836, a document that ceded Native lands that make up 37 percent of what is now the State of Michigan in return for a set of fishing and hunting rights, rights guaranteed into perpetuity. It is a document that Bailey cites often in his discussions about Native rights.

Suffice it to say that holiday baking in the Bailey family means Norwegian Krumkaker and Native fry bread.

Bailey’s own childhood, spent first in Leelanau County and then Traverse City, was comfortable—though he is old enough to remember the no-plumbing-or-electricity scale of poverty in Peshawbestown in the years before federal recognition and casinos. Discrimination against the Native American community in the Grand Traverse region was rampant then, and even Bailey’s Norwegian heritage didn’t completely shield him from its sear. Once, working for a wholesale company as a teenager, Bailey recalls walking past a knot of older men—one of them his great uncle on his mother’s side—lingering in a store he was servicing. “I was wearing the company T-shirt with their logo—I was very proud, my parents raised me with the idea that when you work for someone you represent them, so you do your best,” he says. “As I walked past them I heard, ‘Indian.’ “My uncle spoke up and said, ‘Hey guys, that’s my nephew.’ And then he came out and apologized. I thanked him, but I also left thinking, If that wasn’t me, would he have joined in?”

A naturally positive person, Bailey makes conscious efforts not to dwell on negativity. (“If there was an object that carried negative energy, would you pick it up and carry it with you in life?” he says.) Still, he is quietly competitive. To wit, an incident he recalls in his junior year of high school after he was cut from the Traverse City Central High School basketball team. Though Bailey says he could have worked harder to make the team—he also concedes that in private his family wondered if discrimination had tainted the coaches’ decision. In order to play that season Bailey transferred to Traverse City’s Catholic high school, St. Francis, where the former kid with a brush-cut and open smile recalls a warm welcome by staff, students, coaches and teammates.

Recently, seated in the school’s blue and gold gymnasium with its billboard-size rendering of Jesus Christ looking out at the newly-varnished court from high atop the back wall, Bailey recalled one of his first home games as a St. Francis Gladiator. The game was not against Central, but the two coaches who’d cut him showed up, seated in the first row of bleachers, just feet away from a Gladiator emblem painted on the gymnasium floor in the 3-point zone. “I was just in front of this head here,” Bailey says, walking over to it, then rising to his toes, his red-white-and-blue Bailey for Congress pullover pulling away from his neatly pressed khakis, hands poised in shooting position and says: “I nailed it. It was like swoosh. It felt good. It felt good.”

After high school, Bailey headed to Glen Oaks Community College in Southern Michigan on a basketball scholarship. Those were transformative years, he says: “It really shaped my understanding of what education could do for a person. But more importantly what a degree could do to help others.”

He continued on to Grand Valley State University for a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Work. In college he began to let his hair grow, a decision that coincided with an evolving understanding of the symbolism between hair and his Native history—including Indian boarding schools where children’s hair was shorn and, further back into an even darker past, bounties on Indian scalps. “So now today, for our children we can say, you can grow your hair, you can wear it proudly. Dignified,” he says.

After Grand Valley, Bailey held several jobs in the mental health field. Eventually he ended the relationship with the mother of his sons, Nimkees and Ohsawkihew, now 12 and 8, then met and married his wife, Tonia, who had daughters, Daanis and Panika, currently 13 and 11. They blended their families—Bailey jokes that they are the Bailey-Brady Bunch—and Maengun, 3 now, came along. In 2004 Bailey was elected to the Grand Traverse Band Tribal Council and then to the chairmanship four years later.

Bailey’s performance as tribal chair has been so impressive that by 2009 he was being nudged by people both within and outside the tribe to run for political office. The more traditional political path would have been to run first for a seat in the Michigan legislature rather than head straight for the federal government. “Everyone says, ‘Why didn’t you run for state representative first?’ ” Bailey says. “But treaties were never signed tribe to state. Treaties were signed with the government of the United States of America. That’s my relationship. That’s what I know.”

Fast forward to a morning in November 2011 when an ice storm has wreaked havoc on Northern Michigan roads. Bailey, on his way to speak at Shanty Creek before the Antrim County Lioness Club, is rushed for time, but his braid is tight and glossy, his suit impeccable, his smile all-American as ever.  Still, there are signs of wear from his relentless candidate schedule. Bailey has taken to a steady diet of Rock Star Energy Cola to help fuel his nonstop days, and the tires on the Vue are wearing thin from weekly, sometimes tri-weekly, trips across the Mackinac Bridge.

The mood at Bailey for Congress Headquarters, a spartan office next to Nolan Tobacco on Traverse City’s Front Street, is still optimistic, but there have been disappointments, including the fact that Bart Stupak’s wife, Laurie, recently donated to Democrat McDowell’s campaign—although Stupak himself has yet to pledge support of either candidate.

And there is still a name recognition problem in this gargantuan district. Bailey will be speaking to the Lioness Club today in his role as tribal chairman—he is scrupulous about not campaigning on the tribal clock, sometimes removing a Bailey for Congress pin, only to re-pin it hours later. Even so, the more he can appear in public, the better.

He arrives early enough to chitchat with some of the Lionesses—a towering youthful man in a roomful of women all about retirement age or older. Yet, he chats comfortably, about Tonia and the kids, about a dinner he’ll be attending that evening prior to an appearance at an Antrim County Democratic meeting, and manages to look only fleetingly worried when he hears lamb will be on the menu. Bailey is a beef and potatoes guy. After lunch has been served and cleared, he stands to address the group. His jokes about fears of turning 39 in a few days elicit chuckles. Bailey speaks in Odawa and translates, and his audience is clearly intrigued.

The afternoon is wrapping up when a woman raises her hand and asks something to the effect of, So are there other organizations like yours around? It’s a polite, earnest question, but it is obvious that she knows virtually nothing about what a federally recognized tribe is. It is a back-to-square-one question. The tribal chairman cum Congressional candidate pauses, thinks a moment more, then gives a thumbnail explanation of the National Congress of American Indians.

This article was first featured in the January 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine, get your copy to see this story, plus many more, accompanied with beautiful vibrant photography.

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