Home Featured News A brief history of Native Americans in Grand Rapids

A brief history of Native Americans in Grand Rapids

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By Rachael Ocampo

Bow-E-Ting. It’s probably a name you haven’t heard before, yet you have a closer connection to it than you might think.

If you’re like me, it’s the same city you live, sleep and work in. If you’re like me, you are standing there right now. It’s the name for Grand Rapids before it was called Grand Rapids.

Close your eyes and allow your mind to wander back to a time when the Grand Rapids skyline didn’t exist. When Europeans hadn’t yet found the Grand River. Back when Grand Rapids was called Bow-E-Ting.

According to local historian and Lifeways Institute director Kevin Finney, native people have lived in the greater Grand Rapids area for longer than history can accurately record. Though it is hard to give exact estimates, it is believed that they inhabited this land for 11,000 years before the arrival of the first European settlers in 1650.

To put it into context, Native American people, or the Anishinaabek, as they are formally known in this region, have been around since the melting of the glacial icebergs. That is since the Great Lakes were first formed.

Kevin Finney, Todd Williamson and Jason Lorenz
Director of Great Lakes Lifeways Institute Kevin Finney (left) with environmental scientist Tood Williamson and environmental technician Jason Lorenz.

Grand Rapids’ landscape looked a little bit different pre-colonization. The east side of the Grand River was covered in swampland. On the west side, corn, beans and squash grew in fields.

Where Gerald R. Ford Museum sits today stood a very tall white pine tree. Councils between tribes were often held under this tree.

The river looked different as well, said Finney. Little islands used to sit in the middle of the river. The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel sits on top of one of these islands. After colonization, the river was filled in and its shape reconstructed. Canals were added.

Perhaps most impressive of all were the burial mounds that ran the entire length of Fulton. There used to be an estimated forty mounds in the area. They were destroyed during the 1800s, their soil used to fill in the swampy low areas to help develop the east side. Charles Belknap reminisced on the changes in his book entitled “The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids.”

The two mounds that sit in Ah-Nab-Awen Park today are reconstructions of what these mounds looked like. They are not authentic; merely representations of the past.

Finney noted that not much is known of the Anishinaabe people before colonization. The Anishinaabek, or Three Fires, as they are known in their culture, are mostly comprised of Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi tribes.

According to oral tradition, they originally migrated from the Atlantic Ocean westward. They were given seven prophecies, one of which said to travel west until they found the place where food grew on the water. Thus, they found the Grand River and established several villages along its route.

Their language, Anishinaabemowin, has no official spelling and is not written down. Much like other Native cultures, the Anishinaabek pass down their history orally through generations.

“There are stories in the Anishinaabek language that have been repeated for generations, which talk about mastodons. I mean, 8,000 years of continuous stories,” said Finney.

Among the prophecies came the foretelling of Europeans and the need to bear caution:

“Beware if the light skinned race comes wearing the face of death. You must be careful because the face of brotherhood and the face of death look very much alike. If they come carrying a weapon … beware. If they come in suffering … They could fool you. Their hearts may be filled with greed for the riches of this land. If they are indeed your brothers, let them prove it.” – From the Fourth Fire (wabanaki.com/seven_fires_prophecy.htm)

Life changed drastically for the Anishinaabek after the arrival of European settlers, Finney observed. The introduction of the fur trade brought new goods that the Natives didn’t already have, such as kettles, guns and cloth, but it didn’t come without its own price. Decimation of the beaver population in upstate New York was wrought at the hands of the Iroquois, a neighboring tribe; shortly after, a chain of violent events set off that started what became known as the Iroquois Wars.

“(When Europeans came) it changed the dynamic amongst tribes,” Finney said.

For the next hundred years, the Anishinaabek participated in several wars fighting either against or alongside their pale-skinned compatriots. “They were very actively involved in things that led up to the point of Americanization and settlement,” said Finney. They fought alongside the French against the British in the French and Indian War, and they fought with the British against the Americans in the American Revolution.

When it came to the loss of their land, however, “The Anishinaabek chose very strongly to take a political standpoint rather than a physical fight,” Finney said.

Two treaties signed in the 1900s dramatically affected the ownership of the land. The Treaty of Chicago in 1821 sold all land south of the Grand River, except for reservations. Moreover, the Treaty of Washington in 1836 sold all land north of the river, all the way up to Mackinac.

The signing of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 forced many Anishinaabek to move from their homes permanently. “We had U.S. military rounding up Native people south of the Grand River and physically removing them from their homes,” noted Finney.

Many of these Natives were displaced to either Kansas or Oklahoma to walk the Trail of Tears later on.

Perhaps worst of all was the brutal treatment of Native American children in American assimilation programs, for those that were left behind.

“From the 1870s until the 1930s, we removed almost every Native American child from their home and institutionalized them in boarding schools, like in Mt. Pleasant and in Harbor Springs,” Finney said.

“Their heads were shaved, they were deloused, they were beaten for speaking their own language. This was an Americanization program. They were government (assimilation) programs that were there to break and destroy Native culture.

Recent excavation at one such school unearthed a chilling memory from the past. “They were excavating the cemetery out behind the school—a lot of the children died at these schools, and they found handcuffs. They were just tiny handcuffs for a five-year-old kid.”

The brutal treatment left some Anishinaabek scared to practice their culture, he said.

“The generation of (Anishinaabe) people who are WWII vets from this community grew up speaking Potawatomi as their first language within their homes. Many of them were ashamed to teach their children the language. They said, ‘Don’t speak it. Be like everyone else.’ Because they were afraid.”

When it comes to Native American history, Finney believes much of it is overlooked.

“We give a third grade slot to teach about Native American history… Native American history is just not approached. And maybe it’s because there are many parts of the story that people haven’t come to terms with yet.”

Despite the brutal treatment of the past, he said that the Anishinaabek don’t see themselves as victims. “I’m not saying that Native American people have been victimized. I don’t think Native people look at themselves as victims at all. But it’s been a hard road leading to where things are now to regain what has been lost, and to apply that sovereignty.”

“It’s a (form of) respect to give people back their ancestors. Respect that,” he said.

The Grand Rapids skyline may look different, and the people and culture of this land may be different, but one thing has and will remain the same: the past of this land will always be here, buried deep beneath the ground.