Rethinking, retelling Native American roles in Great Lakes history

Print More

Historic Biddle House on Mackinac Island was once a fur trader’s home and will become a Native American history museum. Image: Creative Commons

By Maxwell Evans
Capital News Service

History officials in Michigan want historical areas to better reflect Native Americans’ contributions to the Great Lakes State.

This push for accurate native representation comes as the state is putting some of its historical markers under greater scrutiny.

The Michigan Historical Commission has worked with the state’s 12 federally recognized tribes to improve the markers, according to Sandra Clark, the director of the Michigan History Center.

“We have not done a good job about telling our stories either from [natives’] perspective or telling the stories that acknowledge that they’re still a vital part of Michigan’s population,” Clark said. “Some of this is not immediately apparent to the casual reader, but we really could do better.”

Using Mackinac Island as “a test case,” the Historical Commission has begun reviewing some markers — many of which date to the 1950s and 1960s. It’s already identified many of them as too narrowly focused, according to Clark.

“Most of the older markers are written from a very Euro-American perspective,” Clark said. “They say that so-and-so discovered Lake Michigan — of course, Native Americans, indigenous people, had known Lake Michigan was there for a very long time before the first Frenchman found out it was there.”

A subcommittee report with recommendations for how to move forward with changes to historical markers is on the agenda for the commission’s April 18 meeting in Lansing.

One of the most egregious offenders was a 1959 marker on Mackinac Island recognizing a replica “bark chapel.” The original chapels were huts used by Jesuit missionaries who lived among Native American tribes throughout the Great Lakes.

The marker, which referred to the colonizing French as “courageous” for turning the “minds of the savages to Christianity,” was removed more than 25 years ago, according to Phil Porter, the Mackinac State Historic Parks director.

“The key thing was to get it out of the public eye because it was offensive and it’s just taken some time to get it rewritten in an appropriate manner,” Porter said.

The agency still holds on to the marker, although Porter said he’s unsure if it’s in storage or where its exact location is.

It’s unlikely that the marker will ever see the light of day again. Porter said it would be put on display again only if given the proper context about its offensiveness — something the Mackinac Island park “doesn’t have the space” to do.

Removing the sign instead of adding context was the right choice, said Eric Hemenway, director of repatriation, archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, a federally recognized tribe in Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

Hemenway said he was okay with preserving the marker for use as part of a larger educational program, but continuing to display it in public — even with the proper context — would do more harm than good.

“It’s one of the most offensive signs I’ve ever seen anywhere, and it speaks to pure colonialism and one-sided history,” Hemenway said. “It really reflects how many Americans still viewed natives throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century.”

Although no replacement has gone up in the quarter-century since the original Mackinac Island marker was removed, replacing a single marker isn’t the only way to better tell the stories of the island’s native people, Porter said.

Mackinac State Historic Parks intends to turn the Biddle House — the former home of fur traders Edward and Agatha Biddle — into a Native American history museum “in the near future.”

Agatha Biddle was an Ojibwa whose regional connections were crucial to the family’s business success, according to the agency’s website. Interestingly, a 1960 historical marker outside the Biddle House makes little mention of Agatha, with the only reference coming in the sentence, “For years he lived here with his Indian wife.”

In addition, M-185 — the non-motorized state highway encircling Mackinac Island — has become the Native American Cultural History Trail. Six stations along the highway detail Native American contributions to Mackinac Island and Great Lakes history.

Changes in the works go further than the History Commission. In Kalamazoo, the city commission voted to remove the “Fountain of the Pioneers” in downtown Bronson Park.

The fountain, designed by Alfonso Iannelli — a colleague of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright — depicts a westward-facing settler standing above a Native American. The park is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The decision to remove the fountain comes after a controversy over its appropriateness dating back to its dedication.

“The Indian is shown in a posture of noble resistance, yet being absorbed as the white man advances,” Iannelli said in a statement to the Kalamazoo Public Library in 1940, the year of the fountain’s completion.

Porter said by removing offensive items, Native Americans aren’t the only people who benefit from better native representation — all visitors to historic places across the state seem to enjoy the new perspective as well.

“We’ve become very interested in improving the way that we communicate the story of Native American history — which by the way, the traveling public is very interested in,” Porter said.

In these efforts, Porter said it was important to collaborate closely with the tribes.

“The key thing is to make sure that they [local groups] work with their local native tribes so that they have their input,” Porter said. “That gives it the validity that’s necessary when presenting this story to the public.”

For example, projects like the Cultural History Trail and the Biddle House were done in direct collaboration with the Little Traverse Bay Bands.

The tribe’s Hemenway, who also serves on the History Commission, said he’s excited to see a focus on native representation gaining more traction at the state and national level.

“We’re in a fortunate time now where our partners are the state of Michigan, they are the National Park Service,” Hemenway said. “Everybody is working together much better from what we see than in the past of telling everybody’s stories.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.