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Legislative Action

While the courts were slowly forming their opinion that Michigan's Indians had no explicit right based on the Treaty of 1817 to free post-high school education, advocates of this position were at work in the state legislature. The same group of students who had pushed forward the lawsuit also had contacts with members of the state legislature. They received a sympathetic hearing from the primarily African-American state House members elected from the Detroit area. In particular Representative Jackie Vaughn felt there was a need for the legislature to address the problem raised by the students. As Vaughn later explained,

[There were] those [who] were keen toward this, in terms of other minorities. I don't have to tell you if I'd have tried to say "I want to introduce a bill for all Afro-American free tuition," I would have been laughed out of existence. But I could do it for a separate group, ... For Native Americans they were sympathetic, and I recognized that.

For Vaughn the Native American tuition waiver program was one step toward addressing the grievances of America's minorities. A long-term and very sophisticated member of the state legislature, he recognized that if he presented an Indian tuition waiver bill as yet another Affirmative Action program the legislation would not gather the necessary votes to pass. However the peculiar status of Native Americans and the unhappy history of their relationship with white society created an opportunity for Vaughn to exploit. As the legislative battle began Vaughn carefully defined the bill as a measure to rectify in part past injustices towards Indians rather than a piece of a broader affirmative action agenda. Over the course of four years Vaughn developed legislation based on a tuition waiver program in place in Minnesota. In 1975 he introduced his bill into the state house.

When the legislation was introduced supporters of the bill relied heavily on Vaughn's carefully crafted, "rights" argument. For example, a Detroit News story of May 21, 1976 reported that backers of the bill claimed that,

"the history of Michigan and the country is replete with promises to Indians, including a guarantee to Michigan Indians of state supported education in return for land already transferred to the state. Without ever passing a law to guarantee the education the state in effect has reneged on its promises made in early treaties."

Supporters of the bill consistently linked the legislation to past obligations they claimed the state had a responsibility to fulfill. Different individuals, however, used different documents upon which to base this "obligation." The Treaty of 1817 played prominently in some people's minds. However others based their claim on treaties signed in 1819, 1855, 1864 or the Comstock agreement. Particularly after the court's rejection of claims based on the Treaty of 1817, even though those who brought the case argued that the court's interpretation was wrong, other documents came to the forefront of the argument.

Although Vaughn saw a window of opportunity to use such arguments and pass the bill, there was resistance to the legislation. One state senator, for example, spoke against the bill, citing "higher priorities for education funds, such as finding enough money for grades from kindergarten through 12." Behind the scenes opponents sought a way to weaken the Native American consensus for the legislation. Les Gemmill, recalls that as the bill approached passage, he faced almost daily requests asking that he find a way to withdraw the Indian Commission's support for the bill, thus giving opponents a convenient excuse to vote against the legislation. Despite such pressure, the commission, as well as the bill's other supporters, held firm. In the summer of 1976 Public Act 174, 1976 created the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver program.