Honoring the First Stewards: Reflections in Michigan for Native American Heritage Month

In the whispering pines of the Upper Peninsula, the rolling dunes of the Lower Peninsula, and the vast shores of our Great Lakes, the heartbeat of Michigan’s Indigenous communities reverberates. During National Native American Heritage Month, we not only acknowledge but deeply feel the presence and influence of the original stewards of these lands — a presence that is as enduring as the lakes themselves.

Michigan’s Indigenous history is rich and complex, woven into the very fabric of our state. The Anishinaabek, which include the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Bodéwadmi (Potawatomi), are known as the Three Fires Confederacy, a dynamic alliance that speaks to the power of unity and collective action. The resilience of the Saginaw Chippewa, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, and the Bay Mills Indian Community, among others, is a story of perseverance through adversity, of a culture surviving and thriving despite centuries of displacement and change.

We stand on the shoulders of giants like Chief Pontiac of the Odawa, who fought fiercely for his people, and legends like Chief Okemos, whose name graces a community that many of us call home. We draw inspiration from their leadership, their deep connection to nature, and their unyielding spirit.

It is essential that we remember and honor the vibrant cultures of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, who continue to teach us the importance of environmental stewardship through their sustainable practices and profound respect for Mother Earth. We must also celebrate the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, who are nurturing their language and traditions with an eye towards the future.

Our recognition should not be confined to one month but should be a continuous commitment to understanding and appreciating the living history and contributions of Indigenous people in Michigan. It is about building bridges of collaboration and support, standing with them in protecting sacred sites like the Straits of Mackinac, and ensuring their voices are heard in the halls of power.

Heartfelt remembrance is an action. As such, we pledge to safeguard the waters, forests, and the rights of all Indigenous communities. We acknowledge the painful history of broken treaties and the social injustices that have followed. We commit to promoting healing and to advance policies that bring about true equity and respect for sovereignty.

This month, let’s renew our dedication to these principles by engaging with Indigenous-led initiatives, educating ourselves and others about the true history of Michigan, and holding space for the stories, the cultures, and the lives of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region.

To all the descendants of Michigan’s first inhabitants: your history is Michigan’s history, your future is our shared future, and your voices will always be vital to the chorus that is our state. We honor you, not only this month but every day, for you are the heartbeat of Michigan.

With respect and solidarity,

Hill Harper