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West Michigan’s Native Americans

By Ann Byle
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Drums beat in rhythm as singers’ voices rise and fall in chants that echo generations past. Dancers move slowly around the circle, their steps and movements synchronized with the drums and voices, all intricately woven into dances that to the unschooled mean little.

Dancers young and old wear Native American dress: bright calicos, leather, feathers, detailed beadwork.

The audience at Riverside Park sits in lawn chairs or on bleachers. Some talk on cell phones or text, others drink bottled water or take pictures. Guests wander the craft and food booths, purchasing everything from high-end blankets and clothing to $1 dream catchers.

The atmosphere of a Native American pow wow is a mix of ancient and modern, young and old, tradition and texting. The ceremony embodies both the ancient practices and the modern mindset of the Native American culture in West Michigan.

Nineteen chiefs once governed the lands around Grand Rapids, leaders of bands of Ottawa Indians who settled near the rivers from Grand Haven to Lansing. Their main gathering place was along the Grand River at what is now downtown, home to the biggest village. The bands created trails to their settlements that became roads and eventually city streets, such as Plainfield, Walker and Kalamazoo avenues and Lake Drive.

Today, descendents of those native peoples make up the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, many of whom are among the estimated 3,000 Native Americans from a number of tribes who live in the Grand Rapids area.

While the Ottawa (or Odawa) settled mainly along the shores of Lake Michigan, the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and Potawatomi tribes settled across Michigan, connected by a loose alliance known as the Three Fires Confederacy. They call themselves the Anishinaabek — “The Original People.” That alliance still exists despite the tribes having separate governing bodies, social services and even health care facilities.

The showcase for local Native American culture is the Three Fires Traditional Pow Wow held in June at Riverside Park and the Grand Valley American Indian Lodge Pow Wow held in September at the park. Pow wows, according to Grand River Bands chairperson Ron Yob, are sacred times for Native Americans, times when traditional dancing and drums are shared and traditional ceremonies are observed.

“Everyone who has ties to the community comes back,” said Yob. “Grand Rapids is the only place where we get the Three Fires — the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi. Other pow wows tend to be just one tribe.”

Yob, who is half Grand River Bands and half Italian, can trace his lineage to more than one of those 19 original chiefs. Grand River Bands vice chairperson Fran Compo is half GRB and half Little Traverse Band, and she, too, can trace her ancestry to those chiefs. While non-Native Americans may wonder at the importance of tribal ancestry, Native Americans base much of their lives on it.

Tribal ancestry
Meticulous records are kept on each tribal member for proof of ancestry. Much rides on that proof, from college tuition waivers and government assistance to hunting licenses and fishing rights.

“You have to prove you belong to that tribe to become a member,” said Yob. “The government makes it important to prove bloodlines because of treaty rights. The treaties are applied to very specific tribes and areas, so Native Americans must prove which tribe they belong to in order to take advantage of those rights.”

Those treaties date back to before the Civil War, when tribes agreed to cease fighting, their lands were acquired by the U.S. government and they were forced to relocate. The Civil War prevented mass removal to the south from this area. Instead, Native Americans were put on boats and dropped off at river mouths along Lake Michigan from Muskegon to Manistee. Many didn’t move, or relocated back to their original tribal lands.

“There is a continuance of a group of people who never left, a resiliency of a people who reside in their indigenous homeland,” said Yob, who graduated from Catholic Central High School and was the first Native American to receive a tuition waver at what was then Grand Valley State College. He taught for more than 30 years in Grand Rapids Public Schools, most often at the now-defunct Native Alternative School.

Actions taken generations ago engendered a distrust of non-natives, and that distrust continues today as Native Americans recall discrimination and prejudice, and their children hear the stories. In an effort to help their people, who often live below the poverty line, organizations such as Native American Family Services have arisen. Governed by the Grand River Bands, the organization also reaches out to other tribes. It services about 200 clients a year, yet touches an additional 300 through programs or one-time visits. It offers substance abuse prevention programs, counseling, help with paperwork and other services.

Leanne Alber, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, runs the Native American Family Services substance abuse prevention programs.

“People come here because they trust natives,” Alber said. “There is a very real distrust of non-natives, which is often a learned behavior because their parents and grandparents faced so many struggles.” Her grandmother, for instance, was sent to a white boarding school, with the attending loss of culture and family. Fellow NAFS worker Leo Pontiac, member of the Little Traverse Band, remembers stories about which stores allowed Native Americans to enter the front door and which did not.

Native Americans are a deeply spiritual people, looking to their belief in Kitchi-Manitou — The Great Mystery — and the Seven Grandfathers’ Teachings (wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth) to achieve pimadaziwin, meaning a long, good life, free from sickness and disease.

Native Americans hold certain plants sacred, such as cedar, sage, tobacco and sweetgrass, which are used in their ceremonies, as well as items such as pipes, drums (representing the heartbeat of the people), drumsticks, rattles and eagle feathers. Feasts and ceremonies play important roles in native life. Beliefs in an unseen power, balance in nature, personal worship, sacred traditions, humor and passing on the sacred knowledge are common among all Native American peoples.

“Our culture is so vast and beautiful, overall,” said Mike Peters, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa Indians and spiritual leader of Four Fires Ministries. Peters traces his lineage back to several chiefs and is an ordained minister. He runs Yashana Lodge, which blends the Anishinaabe sacred ways and the Christian faith.

“For so many years, the church has said that my culture is pagan and evil, that my drum is evil. For 400 years we had to leave behind our ways,” said Peters, who leads the only native Christian gathering in a 40-county radius. “In the search for our identity, we must go back to who we were — and we were an oral people. Our oral history stopped with white contact because 95 percent of our elders were dead.”
Those ancient teachings have been pieced together by the newer generations. “There is an awakening in the Native American culture,” said Peters.

Balance in nature
Balance in nature is vital to Native American culture — a culture based in the woods, grasslands, waters and fauna of the land.

“Everything acts upon each other, whether it’s plants, animals, or humans,” said Yob. “Everything is connected.”


Mike Peters

As evidence of that connectivity, Yob mentions the emerald ash borer, which is killing ash trees that Native Americans use to make baskets. Regulations to control the ash borer mean Native Americans can’t harvest the trees to make and sell the baskets. He also describes harvesting rice in the waters to the north, where the rice may be flattened by the wind, spreading the seeds for next year, or it may be flattened by jet skis and boats that spread oil in the grassy areas.

“Native Americans are a big family; we feel we’re all related. We’re not just related to each other as humans, but we’re related to the plants and insects and animals,” he said. “It hurts when you see nature hurt, because of our concern for all of life.”

Native Americans practice generations-old crafts — basket-making and bead work, using medicinal plants, harvesting rice, hunting and fishing — yet e-mail, digital technology and the Internet are just as vital.

“It’s all about harmony,” said Yob. “You can’t do one thing without it affecting another.”

Facing struggles
The local Native Americans face struggles, not the least of which is the fact that the federal government doesn’t recognize the Grand River Bands as a tribe. More regulations require tribal status, no longer granted to the GRB. And without that recognition, resources for education, housing, health care and special events don’t come to the tribe. Yob is spearheading the effort for GRB recognition.

Health is another struggle: Native Americans have a higher incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Genetics and diet play a role, but so does alcoholism and tobacco. There is also a general lack of health care, either through tribal services or the hospital system. Lack of insurance and living outside tribal boundaries are roadblocks.

Yet there are positives. Both Pontiac and Alber point to the tuition waver as a bonus, especially as their generation takes advantage of educational opportunities. That leads to Natives returning to their communities to help others. Another positive is that Native Americans are a close-knit community, eager to help one another. And there is respect for elders, as younger generations seek their advice and hold them in high esteem.

“Youth are learning that it’s cool to be Native,” said Alber. “Stereotypes are slowly changing away from the drunk Indian. Young people are now proud to be Native.”

Yob adds: “There is unity among us. We’re part of each other and look out for each other. We’re part of a family.”GR

Ann Byle is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids. 

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