From the vivid cliffs of Sleeping Bear Dunes to the dim scratchings of the Sanilac Petroglyphs, Michigan’s Native American heritage enhances the tourist experience in profound ways.
“We are ambassadors, we’re welcoming you, we’re sharing our arts, culture and food with you, and we are opening the door for you,” says Judy Pamp, assistant director of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways in Mount Pleasant, cultural home of the state’s Saginaw-Chippewa tribe. “This is our collective history. There is no you or I; this is us.” Michigan, which was named for the Ojibwa word Michi-gam-e, or “great water,” has 12 federally recognized Indian tribes. Long ago, the Anishinabek people—Ojibwa (Chippewa), Ottawa and Potawatomi—dominated as the Three Fires confederacy. Their descendants still celebrate their roots through powwows, crafts, culture and art. Here are the best ways to celebrate and experience Native American culture within the state.
For history, visit the Ziibiwing Center to see its exhibit on the journey of the state’s first people. Also check out the Grand Rapids Public Museum exhibit, “Anishinabek: The People of this Place” and the Michigan History Museum in Lansing’s “First Inhabitants” gallery. Be sure to visit St. Ignace and the graceful Museum of Ojibwa Culture, which takes visitors to the 1600s when the Ojibwa first met French priests and traders.
For Native American artwork, you might start at the Detroit Institute of Arts to study stunning pieces of early-1800s beadwork by Ottawas in Michigan. Leap into the modern era to see mixed-metal pieces at the year-old Anishinaabe Sculpture Garden in St. Ignace, at the Museum of Ojibwa Culture.
Shop for native artists’ paintings, baskets, jewelry and crafts at gift shops at the Museum of Ojibwa Culture and Fort De Buade Museum in St. Ignace, Ziibiwing Center and Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, and Eyaawing Museum in the Traverse City area.
Even better, find crafts, art, dancing and costumes all in one place, at a powwow. Try the Native American Festival May 26-27 in St. Ignace; Saginaw-Chippewa Tribal Powwow July 27-29 in Mount Pleasant; and the Keweenaw Bay Maawanji’iding Powwow July 27-29 in Baraga.
Two millennia ago, people called Hopewell Indians left mysterious burial mounds near what is now Grand Rapids. About 700 years ago, unknown people created the petroglyphs, drawings on a rocky outcropping in Michigan’s Thumb.
Simply drive through Michigan, and you will hear intriguing place names like Kalamazoo, Keweenaw and Michimilimackinac. All have the lilting cadence of their Indian origins. Beware, though—some native-sounding names, like Leelanau and Kalkaska, were made up by creative map-makers, so check the facts.
Even one of Michigan’s most famous sights has a Native American link. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire is named for a tender Ojibwa legend of a mother bear and her cubs.
Naturally, the most modern Native American attractions are the state’s 23 tribal casinos.
Ranging from modest halls to upscale megaresorts, the casinos have brought prosperity to Michigan’s tribes since the early 1990s. Today, the casinos together take in an estimated $1.4 billion a year, rivaling the revenue of casinos in Detroit.
Three that have glittering, visitor-friendly resort hotels are the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, which is undergoing a $27 million upgrade; the sleekly modern Firekeepers Casino and Resort in Battle Creek; and the Four Winds Casino and Resort in New Buffalo.
Tourists often wonder if they can visit the Michigan land described in the epic poem “Song of Hiawatha.” Hiawatha, literature’s most famous fictional Michigan Indian, frolicked “by the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water”—in other words, Lake Superior, near what is now Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow based his poem on the Ojibwa tale of Manabozho, son of the west wind. Renaming him Hiawatha, Longfellow’s 1855 poem was a smash hit.
Today, you can paddle the 120-mile Hiawatha Water Trail in Lake Superior between Grand Marais and Big Bay. You can camp in the Hiawatha National Forest. And, you can stand high up on the Pictured Rocks and admire the shining big sea water, feeling the whisper of Manabozho, son of the west wind, at your shoulder.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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