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Remembering Indigenous Culture in Michigan

Published: Friday, 02 Jun 2017
Author: VIPP
Department: Visiting International Professional Program

The brand new course "Discovering Michigan" in the Visiting International Professional Program (VIPP) at Michigan State University (MSU) opened visiting scholars' eyes to the forgotten history and legacy of indigenous people in the state of Michigan. Students in Ian Leighton's "Discovering Michigan" class visited the Nokomis Learning Center located in Okemos on May 25th. Ms. Victoria Voges, a staff member at  the Nokomis Center, welcomed the group and delivered a presentation on the history, language, and culture of indigenous people in Michigan, as well as provided a guided tour to the center's exhibits. For our international visitors, the legacy of indigenous people in Michigan was completely new. The group had a glimpse into indigenous culture and learned the linguistic and cultural legacy of indigenous people in Michigan.

The Nokomis Learning Center in Okemos is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of the indigenous culture in Michigan.

These are some quick facts scholars learned on their trip:

-Nokomis means "my grandmother" in indigenous language. In indigenous culture, the grandmother does a lot of teaching to their grandchildren, and the name of the center came from the idea that the center hopes to teach many people about indigenous culture.

- The origin of the name Michigan comes from the Native American word Michigamme, which means "big water."   

- The indigenous people called themselves People of the Three Fires, but European settlers began to name and call them in their own way – that is the Ottawas, Potawatomis and Ojibwe/Chippewa. These names are now commonly used to refer to these tribes, however, these people are called the Anishinaabe in their original language.

- Currently, Michigan has twelve Native American tribes recognized by the federal government that exercise sovereignty, or the power to self-rule. The 2000 census calculates the American Indian population of Michigan to be 58,479, giving Michigan the tenth largest population of Native Americans in the United States.

Pictured above is a regalia, the traditional apparel that the indigenous people wear for events like Pow Wows, a social gathering where Native Americans meet, dance, sing and celebrate their own culture. Regalia is handmade by the dancer or a relative and includes headdresses, bustles, jewelry, footwear sashes, dresses, shirts, leggings, shawls, and a variety of hand-held items. The clothing usually includes pieces made of materials from both the Wingeds (birds) and the four-leggeds (animals). By wearing clothing that contains elements of these natural materials, dancers honor all that gives life on earth.

Chang Kun, our visiting scholar (left) holding the ruler as Ms. Victoria Voges (right) explains the original size of the nest that Bald Eagles live in. Bald Eagles are a sacred creature to indigenous people in North America. As the highest flying bird, bald eagle has a wide wingspan and keen vision, and it is loyal to its mate. It was a symbol of courage, wisdom and loyalty. The Bald Eagle was also chosen as the national bird of the United States in 1782.

The field trip to the Nokomis Center sparked intellectual and thoughtful reflections among our international scholars. Following are their own testimonials.

"It is the first time for me to take such a close look at the Native Americans' life and culture, even though I have been living here in Michigan for almost nine months. The history, arts, and culture of the "People of the Three Fires"– the Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe were gradually presented in front of us with the introduction and description of the tour guide. The two hour visiting time flied by quickly, but the memory of that history will forever be engraved in our minds." - Yanbing Li  

"One artifact that particularly caught my eye was this wooden stick that is engraved with symbols that function as a story. I am really curious what the story is about. In some ethnic minorities' cultures in China, there are people called storytellers. They are so good at telling stories, and by telling stories like poems, legends, history, and customs, they hand over the nation's intangible heritage to the next generations. This stick reminds me of cultures in my own country." - Bo Yang

"I loved those paintings of animals like the wolves, bears, and birds that were worshipped by the indigenous people. They impressed me with their strength and courage through their survival in the wilderness. Colors and designs, animals, and costumes all showcase the long history and vigor of those early residents with their strong spirit. Special thanks should be delivered to our teacher and VIPP for making this trip come true." - Chang Kun

"I was particularly impressed by the stories about relationship between people and nature. In the past, human beings had harmonious coexistence with animals, plants, air, and water. But now we have more conflict than peace. Human beings are possessive and have too strong of a desire to control nature. Embracing and loving the nature as it is will serve the human kind the better." - Donghong Ju

"The history of mankind has been led by strong civilizations, not by the most sophisticated civilizations. This is sad but a fact, and we must acknowledge it. We do not remember many civilizations that disappeared in the history of mankind. Even the effort to remember the lost civilization is a privilege of a strong civilization that survived. Some people may blame the United States for not coexisting with the American indigenous people peacefully, but at least the United States seemed to try to keep memories alive of those forgotten." - Wooram Kim

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