Moving with the Land,
Listening to the Ancestors
My mother’s family are the descendants of French fur traders and Native Americans in the Straits of Mackinac, the islands and narrow waterways connecting the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan and connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron. We are enrolled in the Mackinac Bands of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians, but none of us have lived in the North for a generation. For me, at first, the decision to enroll was more political than cultural: the band has spent the last twenty years petitioning for federal recognition, and I wanted to offer solidarity in the fight. But, over the last couple of years, I have had several profound experiences of reconnection, with the band, the ancestors, and the land.
The Straits are rich in Indian history and are covered with former villages, burial grounds, and special locations. Mackinac Island is particularly sacred for the Anishinaabeg (the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi) in the Straits, and it is said that the manitou, the spirits of our ancestors, are strong there. There are numerous Indigenous stories about Mackinac; perhaps most significantly, some say it is the actual site of the Anishinaabeg creation story.
Mackinac Island is also a picture-postcard resort destination. Situated in Lake Huron, near the famous “Mighty Mac” bridge, it is stunningly beautiful. The quaint “downtown” is peppered with souvenir shops, fudge and ice cream stores, and historical museums dating from the 1800’s when settlers arrived. Cars are not allowed on the island; instead, one must travel by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage, giving the island a distinct from-another-time feel. Having more than a million visitors a year, the island can see as many as 15,000 people per day in the summer months. There is a small year-round population of about 500, and the 2000 census identified approximately twenty percent of them as Indian.
The fact that any Native people at all remain on the island is noteworthy. Still, the dominant population and history is that of the settlers, and sacred locations such as Arch Rock and Sugar Loaf are prized by tourists as geological wonders.
In Moving with the Land, Listening to the Ancestors, I want to honor the sacred locations on the island as well as the people that came before the settlers. I hand-wrote all the surnames from the Durant Roll, an Indian census from 1870 and 1907 that was used to determine who was eligible to receive annuities from the federal government following the treaties of 1836 and 1855 which forced the Odawa and Chippewa to cede most of their land. I rolled those pieces of paper into beads and strung them on a strand that measures over 17 feet long. I took the strand to locations all over the island and read the surnames in an act that was both ceremonial and performative.
Naming is an act of respect, and, in order to understand what we value, we just have to look at how we name things. Naming is also an act of memorializing. To speak the names of the island’s Native inhabitants is to remember them, and to do so in the presence of the island’s oldest rocks, trees, and mosses is to acknowledge that we cannot separate the animate from the inanimate, the spirit from matter, or the people from the land.
I would like to thank Lisa Powers, chairwoman of the Mackinac Bands of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians, and Eric Hemenway, archivist, historian, and director of the Department of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians for their support, guidance, and blessings. I would also like to thank Ben Chaney, director of The Croft Residency in Horton Bay, Michigan, and The Croft’s funders, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Network for supporting this project.