In an earlier post, I began to explore which Indigenous people belonged to the land where my East Frisian ancestors had settled in the 1850s. But I had not done that for the land where I was born, in Detroit, Michigan. I wasn’t surprised to read that it was Anishanaabe land, the land of the people of the three fires, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Potawatomi. Significantly, I didn’t learn about them while I was growing up. Nothing. But as a young adult, that changed as I became an activist. I remember participating in an Anishanaabe gathering in Muskegon, Michigan. I found the button I still have from that gathering, the “Great Lakes Anishinabe Treaty Conference,” in 1982.
The Anishinaabek were really the first Indigenous peoples that I learned about. It has been so long since I lived in Michigan (I left in 1983), that it is hard to remember too many details about what I learned at that time, rather than later. I remember a children’s book written by Edward Benton-Banai, in which I learned the word for grandmother was Nokomis. I remember that sovereignty was important, and treaties had historically been tools for taking land away from the people, but they also preserved certain rights to hunting and fishing. Louise Erdrich is a brilliant Anishinaabe novelist from whom I learned much more of the people’s lives in the context of colonization.
The Anishinaabek lived in the area of the Great Lakes before any Europeans arrived. I learned from Roger Paul, in my Wabanaki Languages class, that the Anishinaabek were related to the Wabanaki many generations ago, and lived on the east coast. About a thousand years ago, they were led to move west, and they were guided to stop in the Great Lakes. The Anishinaabe languages are in the same language family as the Wabanaki, (and the Innu as well), called Algonquian by linguists. The word for “my grandmother” in Passamaquoddy is Nuhkomoss. The Innu would say, Nukum.
The first Europeans who interacted with the Anishinaabek in the Great Lakes region were the French. When Michigan later became a territory of the new United States, the majority of people living in Michigan were Native people. You can find out many more details of the history of the people from that time forward on the website of the Ziibiwing Center of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. Michigan still has twelve federally recognized tribes today.
I think the first step in the process of making right relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is to learn the history of our peoples’ interactions with each other, to understand the traumatic process of colonization that occurred on these lands. Only if we know the history can we begin to make sense of the present. With the mixed blessing of the internet, it isn’t so hard to find out these things if we look. Do you know what Indigenous people lived on the land which you now occupy?