Former Pokagon chair announces retirement

Published 10:10 am Friday, September 11, 2015

For the past four decades, Matt Wesaw has devoted himself to protecting and improving the lives of the men and women who call the state of Michigan — including those of his fellow Pokagon citizens.

Be it on the roads as a trooper in the Michigan State Police, from the Dowagiac chambers of the tribal council as the chairman of the Pokagon Band, or, most recently, from his office in Lansing as the executive director of Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Wesaw has spent nearly his entire life in public service.

After such a long and decorated career, the Lansing resident is ready to slow down and focus his time and energy on the people most important to him — his family.

Wesaw announced that he will retire from his position as the head of the state civil rights office at the end of October, when his contract with the office is set to expire. His departure comes a little more than two years after he joined the department, after stepping down as the leader of the Pokagon Band in fall of 2013.

“I’ve been in public service for 41 years, and I’ve done a lot of things for a lot people,” Wesaw said. “Now it’s to share some time with family.”

The director first began contemplating retiring back in April, after the death of his mother caused him to reflect on the amount of time he was spending with his family, he said. After discussing the topic with his wife, he met with the civil rights commission in July to inform them he would not be renewing his contract come the fall.

Despite his relatively brief tenure, Wesaw has accomplished a number of victories for the rights of marginalized communities during his stint with the civil rights department, he said. Last year, his office spearheaded the passage of improved standards for sign language interpreters serving Michigan businesses and organizations, pushing forward action that had been stalled for nearly seven years, he said.

“We got it done in five months,” Wesaw said. “That was a huge victory for the deaf and hard of hearing community.”

The department has also helped create several new advocacy groups that help bridge the gap between police and the communities they serve, known as Advocates And Leaders For Police And Community Trust (ALPACT).

“The purpose of these groups is that they bring together community, law enforcement, faith and business leaders to develop this ongoing trust,” Wesaw said. “That way, when a situation like in Ferguson, Baltimore or Cleveland happens, they already have that line of communication open so they can discuss these delicate issues.”

While several of these organizations had already existed across Michigan, Wesaw and his office were able to establish them in five additional communities, including in Holland, Kalamazoo and Jackson, he said.

With a father, several siblings, four children, 10 grandkids (with another on the way) to visit, Wesaw plans on spending a lot of time post-retirement bonding with family, especially those still living in western Michigan, he said.

Just because Wesaw is retiring doesn’t mean he has done serving his Pokagon people, though.

Wesaw was reelected to the Pokagon Tribal Council earlier this summer, taking office in August. While family will remain his priority, he plans on continuing to devote a portion of his time and energy to improving the lives of the growing Native American nation.

“You never want to sit back and do nothing,” Wesaw said. “I’ll always be doing something.”