History of the OMB

An abbreviated history of the Original Michilimackinac Bands

Charles E. Adams, Jr., Ph.D.

A nation of native peoples known as the Anishnaabe – translated as “original people” – farmed the fields, fished the waters and hunted the forests in what is now the State of Michigan and lands further to the west centuries before European explorers rediscovered North America. Though diverse with respect to culture and tradition, they spoke a common language and enjoyed similar religious practices. They lived fruitful, though sometimes difficult lives in a land rich with natural resources and one that was capable of providing for all of their worldly needs.

The Anishnaabe were early inhabitants of the lands bordering the Straits of Mackinac – Michilimackinac, who according to the migration story came west from the great salt water (the Atlantic Ocean) in the east during the Late Woodland Era. The Straits, a series of channels separated by numerous islands and shoals, join the waters of Lakes Michigan and Huron in the north and divide the State of Michigan into an Upper and a Lower Peninsula. Historical records document the presence of numerous Anishnaabe settlements and villages on both shores of the Straits as well as the adjacent lakes . Not coincidentally with their continuous habitation on the shorelines of these bodies of water, fishing has played an important role in Anishnaabe life and culture from the very beginning.

Explorers and missionaries began to arrive in the land of the Anishnaabe in the early 17th century. The explorers, many of whom would eventually settle in the region, sought land and help from the natives. To further their land acquisition efforts, the settlers needed treaties and agreements with the natives. Finding no central government structure with whom they could negotiate, the settlers somewhat arbitrarily, assigned common tribal names to individual bands or villages in an effort to formalize and simplify the negotiating process. Some natives were called Chippewa from the original Ojibwa; others were called Ottawa from the original Odawa and still others Potawatomie. Each band or village was associated with an ogemah (Chief). The given tribal names were more associated with location rather than with particular distinguishing characteristics of the individual peoples. The Chippewa and Ottawa were found primarily in the northern portion of their annual range while the Potawatomie were found in the south. Though artificially separated by name, the three major tribes have remained intimately linked through their common Anishnaabe language and spirituality. The strong association that results from that linkage is known as the Council of Three Fires.

For two hundred years following the arrival of the first settlers, the Anishnaabe, now identified as either Chippewa, Ottawa or Potawatomie, watched helplessly as their ancestral land holdings diminished and their personal freedoms were reduced. While outwardly espousing sovereignty for native tribes through the issuance of protective laws and orders, the young government of the new United States often failed to prevent forcible seizure of Indian lands by aggressive settlers. Land transfers, when not done illegally, were accomplished by one-sided treaties; the Treaty of 1836 is one such example. In that agreement, Indians ceded large expanses of land to the United States in return for small land payments in the form of money or goods and the retention in perpetuity of their age-old hunting and fishing rights. Written in English, the language of the treaties was largely incomprehensible to the tribal ogemahs who, with merely an X as a signature, signed away vast tracts of land. For example, the land area ceded in the Treaty of 1836 and another in 1855 subsequently became the State of Michigan. Notwithstanding the obvious value of this land cession to the United States, land payments to the Indians soon stopped and the hunting and fishing rights so important to the Indians way of life were not even recognized by the new state government. The next 100 years would witness a continuing effort by the federal government to erase any trace of Indian culture and heritage and to assimilate all natives into the white community. The expression was, “Kill the Indian, save the man”. Those efforts met with only limited success as the desire of the Indians to practice their culture and honor their heritage was strong and deeply ingrained in their consciences. Intense efforts by the white federal establishment failed to destroy that desire.

A century after the devastating land transfer Treaties of 1836 and 1855 were signed and more than three hundred years after the arrival of the first European visitors to the land of the Anishnaabe, Michigan descendants of the Anishnaabe treaty signers sued the U.S. During this time period, the Congress of the United States passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) with an express purpose, “ to rehabilitate the Indian’s economic life and to give him a chance to develop the initiative destroyed by a century of oppression and paternalism”. Demands by the Indians and a progressively more humane approach by the federal government to Indian needs subsequently led to the recognition by the government of several Indian tribes (Bands) in northern Michigan, the area originally occupied by the Original Michilimackinac Bands. Two such tribes are the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians located in the eastern portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians located in the northeastern portion of the Lower Peninsula. Recognition, in effect, implemented the IRA by giving those and other tribal governments access to land claims money held in escrow and to various social and economic programs for Indians sponsored and funded by the federal government for monies owed them as a result of treaty land claims.

Today, the Original Michilimackinac Bands of Anishinaabe are in the process of documenting the criteria necessary for obtaining federal recognition. The process is approaching completion and a formal recognition application will be submitted in the near future. Several factors support a favorable response to the application for recognition including. approximately one-half of the membership of the federally recognized Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians claim descendancy from Original Michilimackinac Bands ancestors. Recognition will have dramatic and far-reaching effects for the Michilimackinac Bands. It will permit the Bands to access resources for enhancing and promoting native tradition, culture and economic development for the benefit of all Bands descendants. Recognition will also permit the proud Michilimackinac Bands to take its rightful place at the council table with other great Anishnaabe woodlands peoples of the Great Lakes region. The future of the Original Michilimackinac Bands, who are identified in Indian country as “Keepers of the Environment”, is bright.

Copyright © 2009
Charles E. Adams, Jr., Ph.D.