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West Michigan Indians

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This writing will compare and contrast research and knowledge that I had about Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi Indians of West Michigan before and after I visited the Anishinabek exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi Indians of West Michigan

“Indian,” what exactly does that mean. If you ask a random person on the street they would probably tell you a lot of things that can be found in a Hollywood movie. Fancy outfits, bows and arrows, horseback riding, fights with cowboys, and the list goes on. While some of what the general person knows about Indians is true we have to realize that the term “Indian” was made up by the white man. This is something that I didn’t really ever think about until writing this paper. I was just like that random person on the street who just remembered what I saw on the TV. We really should be calling “Indians” Native Americans because that is what they are. They are the native people of this land we call “America.” They were here before the European settlers came here. Before visiting the Anishinabek exhibit I studied some books that specifically related to the Indian Tribes at hand. In my readings I learned about some of their history, tradition, and culture. One book that I read excerpts out of was the History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan by Andrew J. Blackbird. This book was written a very long time ago in 1887. I chose this book because it was written by a Native American and I thought it would give a very good untainted perspective about the true history of the West Michigan Indian tribes.

In this book there was a lot to be said about Indians being mistreated by white men. The author quotes, “From this time hence my father lost all confidence in white men, whatever the position or profession of the white man might be, whether a priest, preacher, lawyer, doctor, merchant, or common white man. He told us to be bewaring of them, as they all were after one great object, namely, to grasp the world’s wealth. And in order to obtain this, they would lie, steal, rob, or murder.” (Blackbird, 1887, p. 29). The Indians of the Western Great Lakes by William Kinietz and Antoine Raudot was the second book that I used in my preliminary research. I found this book to be very informative about the West Michigan Indian’s traditions, religious beliefs, dress, and personal characteristics. They were very reliant on the land it was their life support. Everything they needed and wanted came from the land. Furs, food, shelter, arts and crafts were all made from natural things collected and gathered from the land.

Hunting and fishing was very important for food purposes. Herbs were collected from the land for medicine. All of the skills needed to live off the land were passed down from generation to generation and used to survive. One thing I found very interesting is this quote, “Punishment of no kind seems to have been used, the children growing up in complete liberty. This condition and the resulting small show of respect for their parents was shocking.” (Kinietz & Raudot, 1965, p. 92). The children were very well behaved and respected their elders, something we often don’t hear about in modern society. A third text I examined, Native North Americans from Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, gave me a good general overview of their religion and folklore. They believe in unseen powers, sometimes called, “The Great Mystery.” (“Native North Americans,” 2009, p. [Page. 389). They believe that we must respect all life and maintain balance because all things are interdependent. Medicine men and women are responsible for secret knowledge passed on from generation to generation.

“Humor is a necessary part of the sacred because it keeps us in perspective and eases our journey through the difficulties of life.” (“Native North Americans,” 2009, p. 389). Visiting the Anishinabek exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum was a very good way to get a good idea of the history of the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi Indians. The first thing you see is some writing on the wall that says, “Here is the story of the Anishinabek – “the people” – in their own voices, with rare and fascinating objects, photographs and documents handed down through their families.” This writing was basically making it clear that everything was from the West Michigan Indians themselves including documentation and direct quotes from direct descendants. The exhibit starts out by painting a picture of how the early 1800’s European settlers affected their economic life. They had to use their traditional skills to make a living. This included but not limited to basket making, quill work, and bead work. These works were sold to Michigan tourists.

Each generation of children learned to make a living directly from their elders. The Anishinabek lived directly off the land. Hunting, fishing, and gathering was very important to their survival. They also sold furs from the game they caught and traded fish to white farmers for other goods. During harvest season they traveled in groups which promoted aspects of community. They renewed old friendships, greeted extended family, and shared stories, songs and traditions. They even had ball teams on camp and danced on Friday nights. The Anishinabek gave control of their land to the Federal Government but they still wanted to have the right to fish, hunt, and gather on the land. They came to an agreement with the fed to allow them the right to continue to do this. However, it wasn’t long before people were criticizing them for “poaching” deer and fish, but they kept doing it anyways. Michigan challenged the Anishinabek’s right to fish, hunt and gather until Judge Noel Fox guaranteed that old treaties protected their rights to the land. The next section of the exhibit explains some of the Anishinabek’s religious views.

A quote from the exhibit, “Sky, sun, stars, moon, rocks, earth, water, plants, trees, have always been the teachers of the Anishinabek” (Anishinabek: The People of This Place, Eva Petoskey Peshawbestown, Grand Rapids Public Museum, 6/12/2012). The Natives were very in touch with the land they believed everything was interconnected somehow. Even after the European people started inhabiting the land the natural world still continued to influence them. In the late 1800’s the Anishinabek were forced into boarding schools by the Federal Government. A quote from Richard Henry Pratt, “kill the Indian, save the man.” (Anishinabek: The People of This Place, Grand Rapids Public Museum, 6/12/2012). He believed the only way to help the Indian population was to completely integrate them into dominant white culture. In these schools they were punished for speaking their native language or practicing traditional customs. Many of them changed their names because it was difficult to get a job with an Indian name. During the 1900’s the Indians started adapting to the European culture quite a bit. This was largely due to the boarding school influence on the children.

However, the media formed misconceptions that they were rustic people who lived unchanged from their past. They were given costumes for parts in movies that were not of authentic Indian origin. Pow Wow’s of the 1960s blended new and old traditions. Many Natives turned to Protestant Christianity. Dance attire incorporated specific things from their lives. They realized getting educated was essential to conforming to society. Gatherings were turned into baseball games and Christian camp meets. Tribal governments were formed that worked closely with the Federal Government. They were required to take care of local law enforcement, health, human services, and education. Pretty much everything except they had no military powers. The Anishinabek people however, served in the American military. Today there are 6 tribal governments in Michigan. After visiting this exhibit can I really just believe everything I read and saw? Well I probably shouldn’t. It’s important to get a view from other perspectives. I found a book called Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940. This text really explained pretty much exactly what the museum exhibit did except in greater detail and some personal stories. It portrayed a very negative image of the boarding school and cultural integration.

Another book that I found was Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences, it really had a very different perspective. It examined how some of the Indian people embraced the fact that they were at boarding school and really got a good education that allowed them to turn things around. A good quote from the book that explains this, “Thus the very system that non-Indians had established to kill the Indian in him and save the man provided Indian students with the experience and expertise to turn the power” (Trafzer, Keller, & Sisquoc, 2006, p. 1). The book explains every situation was different. There are different tribes, schools, teachers, and personalities. All of these factors combined result in a very complicated social situation where generalizations can be made. Visiting this exhibit has really educated me a lot about Michigan Indians and how the Europeans were very Ethnocentric. But some Indians chose to be positive about the situation and used it to their advantage. Before this exhibit I just knew that the European settlers took their land and gave them rights to hunt and fish on it. However the reality is that even though we did give them rights to the land it was considered expendable. I believe there was a time when it was a lot harder for the Natives.

But treaties supporting Indian Sovereignty have made things a lot better for them. I have also learned that the Natives were a multi-dimensional, complex people because there were things that the Europeans failed to learn from them. Some examples from the exhibit were the arts and crafts that they made. They sold these unique items to tourists who didn’t know how to find or made them. Also, they were native to the land so they knew about unfamiliar foods and medicines from the land. This project was an important thing that I have experienced. It has taught me that there is a lot of bad information, stereotypes, and generalizations out there. You need to get the facts before you buy into stereotypes. You also need to test yourself every once in a while to see if anything that isn’t true somehow got pounded in there. This is important because it can create social barriers between people you could potentially form relationships with socially or in a business or profession. Stereotyping is a big thing in my job. Often we get temporary people in that are of a different color or ethnicity, and other workers will automatically form judgments about their intelligence.

So they end up getting the raw end of the deal because people don’t think they even deserve a chance. I could help this situation by going out of my way to teach them something new each day and talking with the other people about being more accepting of people. In my social life there are often people that I don’t approach because I feel like we wouldn’t have anything in common. But the reality is that everyone has the ability to be open minded and share interests. There are smart people with good tastes in things from every race. I need to work on this myself. One way to do this is to make an effort to start a conversation with someone of another race whenever possible. This will help me to form new views of the people that I have formed false misconceptions about. In conclusion the most important thing I have learned from this project is to not allow myself to form misconceptions about people, it only creates social barriers. It is important to be accepting of all people, they might help you or teach you something really important one day.


Blackbird, A. J. (1887). History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan. Ypsilanti, MI: The Ypsilantian job printing house. Cleland, C. E. (1992). Rites of conquest: the history and culture of Michigan’s Native Americans. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Kinietz, W. V., & Raudot, A. D. (1965). The Indians of the Western Great Lakes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Native North Americans. (2009). In T. L. Gall & J. Hobby (Eds.), Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 384-396). Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.davenport.edu/‌ps/‌i.do?id=GALE%7CCX1839300198&v=2.1&u=lom_davenportc&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w Trafzer, C. E., Keller, J. A., & Sisquoc, L. (2006). Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. U of Nebraska Press. Child, B. J. (1999). Boarding school seasons: American Indian families, 1900-1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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