PESHAWBESTOWN – Bill Bailey frequently glances out his window to the waters of West Bay, just a stone's throw from his office.
Bailey is chief warden of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB). The head of the Natural Resources Department, he is also the tribe's longest-serving employee, with 30 years and two months of conservation work under his belt. His department oversees tribal commercial fishing, inland hunting and fishing, and resource conservation.
Bailey, 56, grew up in neighboring Benzie County and has hunted and fished for as long as he can remember. He first started as a conservation officer trainee in the department, and eight years later took over as chief warden. He says he didn't think he'd be around the department this long, but he has taken to the job like, well … a fish to water.
Being out on that water is Bailey's passion enjoys most about his job. Since being elected chair of a joint law enforcement committee for Great Lakes fisheries management, he's getting even more opportunity to do that. He coordinates joint patrols of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Superior between the GTB and four other tribes and the state. The group's mission: enforcing commercial fishing and subsistence laws of the Great Lakes.
They make sure both gill and trap nets are properly identified and marked so they are visible. They check the fishermen's catch (species, size, amount) to make sure it's within the guidelines for the particular zone being fished. They also make sure they are licensed to operate either their fishing tug or small boat.
"When I started it was one and two man fishing operations on a small boat, basically an old rowboat with a motor," says Bailey. "They'd set the gill net, and it was an easy fishery. But, they were very limited by weather."
Bailey says the need for fishermen to make more money required bigger boats that could travel farther out and withstand rougher weather. By 1985, many commercial fishermen had cast away their rowboats for gill net tugs.
This change in tribal commercial fishing to make it a more lucrative livelihood is but one of the significant changes Bailey has witnessed in his more than three decades with the tribe. Federal recognition in 1980 was a pivotal moment in the Band's history, he says. The Band developed a constitution and formed a government, developed programs to serve the membership and created an Economic Development Corporation for the establishment of businesses.
From Bailey's perspective, federal recognition meant the tribe was eligible for funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs for health services and also assistance with housing – which changed a lot of lifestyles in the community, he recalls.
Next, came tribal gaming. What started as a bingo hall grew into the north's first gambling mecca – the Leelanau Sands Casino – during the mid-1980s.
"It didn't impact my job, but it brought more job opportunities for the community," says Bailey. It also brought challenges. "It brought people into the area that didn't understand what was going on," he says. "A lot of people thought tribal fishing was tied to gaming."
Bailey remembers a bumper sticker: "Don't gamble our fisheries away!" But he reiterates that the fisheries were never tied to gambling. "It was just the rumor mill … how stories got to be gospel."
In November 2007, the tribe was issued an Inland Consent Decree, an agreement with the state concerning inland hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. "The state initially didn't think we had the right, didn't think we reserved these rights," says Bailey. "We contested that we never gave them up."
One of the rights granted in the decree allows for fish spearing in some streams and rivers. "Some think this is a cardinal sin but, for us, it's just another way to eat." He says some people in the general public "thought we were spearing every fish." In 2010 a total of 14 fish were speared by tribal members, notes Bailey.
Bailey believes the most positive impact of his tenure has been being able "to regulate our people…and easing tensions."
Bailey jokes when asked how long he plans to keep working. "My retirement plan? Cremation." In all seriousness, though, he hopes to work until he turns 62. If that happens, he will mark nearly 40 years with the tribe.What legacy does he hope to leave behind? "That each tribe stands up for themselves, but not so strongly that they're an outcast. That we continue on as protection for the resource, whether water, fish, animals, or plants." BN