For the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, this has always been home
When you think about the tip of the mitten, what comes to mind? Fudge? Beautiful beaches? Vacation cottages?
Daniel Hinmon, a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB), wants you to know that his homelands are so much more than that.
“We are still here, you know?” he says.
Hinmon’s tribe, like many others, has survived removal, boarding schools, and treaty violations. To top it off, a recent district court decision rejected their reservation boundaries (the tribe is appealing). But, no matter what, this has always been and always will be their home.
“We're just trying to keep what we've been doing and keep our traditions alive, you know?” he says. “And stay relevant as a community.”
Hinmon is the Treaty Resources Specialist for the tribe’s Natural Resources Department. It’s his job to get citizens involved in learning and practicing their treaty rights.
He invited us along for a look at the northernmost chunk of Lower Peninsula through his eyes. Spoiler alert: we didn’t go to any fudge shops or resorts — but there were many beautiful bodies of water.
The Odawa are part of a broader group of Indigenous people known as the Anishinaabek, who also include the Ojibwe and Potawatomi. Their language is called Anishinaabemowin, and we'll name some places we visit and things we see in Anishinaabemowin as well as English.
Nmé (Sturgeon) River
Wolverine Village Park sits on the banks of the Sturgeon River in, you guessed it, the tiny village of Wolverine. It boasts a pavilion, a grassy lawn, a playground, an outhouse, and proximity to snowmobile trails.
The river is sparkling clear. It’s a beautiful location, popular with tourists - a good spot for launching kayaks and canoes.
But today, it’s a good spot for launching Nmé (sturgeon).
Every year, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians raise Nmé in their tribal hatchery and release them into the river in hopes of repopulating nearby Burt Lake.
Kris Dey, the tribe’s hatchery manager, says it’s part of a larger effort between tribes, the state, universities, and conservation organizations to restore populations of this ancient fish, which were decimated after the arrival of settlers.
“Between all the different agencies, we're working really hard to bring 'em back,” says Dey.
But it’s not just tribal biologists and hatchery staff here seeing off the fish. The tribe makes this a community event.
After a feast, a tribal council member conducts a ceremony and gives a teaching about the importance of Nmé in Odawa culture.
Tribal staff are at the ready with educational materials, fun facts, and one of the fish in a glass tank.
Eager kids line up for the chance to handle and release Nmé. Denise Petoskey, a tribal citizen (and grown-up), looks as excited as any of them as she stands near the riverbank with a tiny fish in her hands.
"He's a little bit squirmy and rough, and I think he's excited to get ready for his journey,” she says.
She tells him “Baamaapii” as he hits the water, which roughly translates to “see you later” in Anishinaabemowin.
Everybody is laughing, gasping at how cold the water is, and marveling at how the fish are simultaneously spiky and slimy. Dan Hinmon is beaming.
“Everybody's happy, everybody's smiling, everybody's doing their part, and it's a good day to be alive,” he says. “I'm so happy today.”
Wah Wahs Noo Da Ke (LTBB Tribal Housing/community center)
When asked to show us around, one of the first things Hinmon suggests is a visit to Yvonne Walker-Keshick. She’s 71, a master porcupine quillworker, and a fixture in the community.
“I love hearing her stories and hearing her talk,” says Hinmon. “You never know what you're gonna hear but you know it's gonna be great.”
Walker-Keshick lives in Wah Wahs Noo Da Ke, the Little Traverse Bay Bands’ elder housing.
Her kitchen is dominated by a long white folding table. She’s set it with banana bread and coffee, but the table’s main purpose is clear: it’s covered in marks and scratches, and there’s a box of quillworking supplies in the corner.
She produces a small birchbark box, adorned with porcupine quills in the pattern of a buffalo. It’s absolutely stunning — the level of detail is incredible.
“I try to make them as close as I can to that animal,” says Walker-Keshick. “I think of that animal, what they eat, how they might act, and what their lives might be like...and I read up on 'em, and I tell that to my students too.”
Walker-Keshick obviously puts as much love and care into teaching as she does into her own work. She regularly gives lessons at her kitchen table.
"It's not unusual to have somebody come over while I'm working and do quillwork,” she says.
With palpable pride, she asks her granddaughter, Haven, to show off a box she’s decorated with a heart pattern.
Walker-Keshick survived Harbor Springs’ Holy Child Boarding School, a place where staff brutally tried to strip Anishinaabe children of their culture. She later learned quillworking, and now, she’s devoted to teaching it as long as she’s alive.
“You don't see it, but we're all connected, and that's how we survived,” she says. “And we taught the best of what we knew to younger people to continue on whatever it is that we needed to do to survive. So that's how I learned...and by teaching another person, you're honoring them. So, it just goes down the line is that connection that goes along.”
Walker-Keshick also teaches at the Three Pines Studio and Gallery in Cross Village. She somehow finds time to lead tour groups in the area — where she asks people to look at things a bit differently.
“I do a Native and North tour, and I tell everybody...when you look at this lake, ignore the houses,” she says. “Ignore the big buildings and all that you see. That's debris.”
In the same complex as the elder housing units is the tribe’s community center. Here, we meet Melissa Wiatrolik, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.
“We protect those traditional cultural properties within our reservation area,” she says. “So that means traditional stories, where we had ceremonies, where we prayed...anything that's significant to us as a tribe.”
Her office is tucked to the side of the building — the community center is mostly comprised of a large open space.
“We have a lot of things that happen here,” says Wiatrolik. “We have weddings, we'll have canning classes, preservation for food...they have workshops, we have language classes out here.”
Today, the centerpiece of the space is a long birchbark Jiimaan (canoe), intricately painted with floral designs and perched on a folding table.
The Jiimaan is over 100 years old, and for a long time it fell into non-native hands. But, it was recently returned to the tribe, and Dan Hinmon has been working on restoring it.
“It was hanging in this guy's office, and you know, it got dry and it got brittle and it fell and it broke,” he says. “And to me that told me it was thirsty, calling out to the water. So, you know, when they gave me the opportunity to help take care of it, it became my goal to restore it and return it to the water where it rightfully belongs. So that's my mission.”
Ziibimijwang (tribal farm)
Just off the road between Mackinaw City and Petoskey is a farm with a red barn and sunflowers so big you could practically see them from the sun itself.
Kylaar Manfredine is standing next to the front garden.
“This is my baby. This is my garden. Ziibimijwang — Little Traverse Bay Band Farm. This is our traditional garden right up front here in the main field.”
Ziibimijwang means “farm where the river flows.” And it’s here that Manfredine is working to bring back a number of traditional crops alongside a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables.
In the front is a garden called the “Three Sisters.” It’s a traditional plot style that, when completed, will be made up of Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, and squash.
“It’s a polyculture,” explains Manfredine. “It grows just like nature, when you see weeds and shrubs growing under trees. You have your deep root systems, which the trees have, and you have other plants that have shallower root systems that grow under it. This is similar to that.”
Manfredine points out Menominee Squash, and Bear Island Flint Corn from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. The corn is delicious, even though it’s raw and not quite mature.
There aren’t any beans in the garden yet, because Manfredine is ‘saving seed’ on an Odawa pole bean variety. The few seeds he started with were not easy to get — he says it’s been hundreds of years since the tribe has had them.
“I drove to Kentucky and back. Went down deep in the mountains,” he says. “I drove 22 hours for beans!”
Manfredine has blue sage and tobacco growing in the front garden, as well.
“We use [tobacco] for prayers. Even when we’re growing it, we put good thoughts into it knowing that people are going to use it to put down tobacco and pray,” he says. “We try to keep good thoughts into everything like this, but specifically tobacco, because it’s sacred.”
Manfredine clearly takes pride in the food that he grows — he thinks it’s essential for reclaiming culture and being self-sufficient as a community.
“I think it’s as important for food to be as sovereign as people. Because it’s needed, for everybody,” says Manfredine. “And tribal people are kind of like making their step in reintroducing their food again, that was lost.”
The farm doesn’t only grow traditional crops. Everything from arugula to shallots is planted across the 16 acres of land. It all goes back to supporting the tribe — either through selling the produce or by giving it directly back to tribal citizens.
“Pellston Schools ordered 700 pounds of our tomatoes,” Manfredine says. “And we had a lot of extra zucchini so we went door-to-door in the tribal village and gave them away.”
The general public can buy produce from Ziibimijwang at Minogin Market, the tribe’s store in Mackinaw City.
The farm is also going to begin hosting tribal events, like feasts and cooking lodges. Dan Hinmon uses other parts of the land to lead community hunts.
At the end of the day, Manfredine says, “It’s all about eatin’ good.”
Manoomin (wild rice) beds
At the end of a winding dirt road, a sandy parking lot opens up to a small beach and boat ramp on a large, shallow lake surrounded by wetlands.
The site is publicly accessible, but we’re not going to say exactly where it is. There’s something precious growing here, something better kept a secret.
“The best thing it's got going for it is that nobody knows it's there,” says Dan Hinmon.
On the other side of the lake is a bed of Manoomin (wild rice).
Manoomin is part of the Anishinaabe migration story. The Anishinaabek came to the Great Lakes region from the east, after a prophecy foretold that they should go to the place with “the food that grows on water.”
The plant is a dietary staple for the Anishinaabek. After settlers arrived, many wild rice beds were destroyed or severely damaged by dams, pollution, and nonnative species. Manoomin is extremely sensitive to changes in water levels.
Lots of tribes, including the Little Traverse Bay Bands, are now working on restoring Manoomin beds. This is just one of many in the area.
Hinmon says one of the best ways to restore wild rice is to harvest it.
“When you're harvesting, you're knocking in the seeds,” he says. “It's very important that we come out every year and still see the plants.”
It’s not quite harvest time, but today Hinmon is visiting and checking on the rice.
The beds are only accessible by canoe. It’s a really windy day, but you can hear the chorus of birds and insects from any spot on the lake.
“Part of going out on the water, being one with the water and Manoomin...is just listening to the sounds, and there's no therapy that can compare to that,” says Hinmon. “I love it every time I come out here.”
As we round the edge of a rice bed, he points out some birds “dancing” in it.
“Red-wing blackbirds,” he says. “I love seeing them. They love the Manoomin. They eat it. Every time I see them I know Manoomin's nearby.”
The plant is beautiful up close. It’s long and thin, and purplish at the ends.
When Hinmon talks about the Manoomin, you can hear the gratitude in his voice.
“Just imagine all the food we used to have,” he says. “We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that [Manoomin], so we owe it that much respect.”
Straits of Mackinac
The last stop of the week is the Straits of Mackinac. For the 5th year in a row, Indigenous activists have gathered here to call for the shutdown of the 66-year-old twin oil pipelines that run beneath the sparkling blue convergence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. The pipelines, part of the system known as Line 5, are owned by Enbridge Energy.
The annual event is called the Pipe Out Paddle Up Protest, and centers around a flotilla — a bunch of kayaks and canoes (including massive tribal Jiimaans) paddling the Straits. This year, it was organized by Brandy Lee, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians is not officially affiliated with this event, but several tribal citizens were involved in planning it, and many have turned out to attend.
Vicki Kelley, an LTBB citizen, says a prayer to kick things off.
"Take pity on us as we go out into these waters, keep us safe, keep us loved,” she says. “Take our prayers and our intentions to protect the earth. Give all our prayers and our strength and our intentions to the water as we come here to protect the water. Safe travels on the water.”
The Straits of Mackinac have always been an important meeting place for the Anishinaabek and today, several tribes are represented. The chairmen of the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians show up to give speeches.
Dozens of kayaks and canoes congregating under the Mackinac Bridge are a colorful, impressive sight. Jannan Cornstalk, another LTBB citizen, sits in the front of a massive Jiimaan and sings through a megaphone.
“Mno bimaadziwin, chi miigwech gizhemanidoo,” she sings. She's thanking the Creator for "mno bimaadziwin", or "the good life."
Dan Hinmon has brought the restored Jiimaan in hopes of bringing it on the water today. Things didn’t go quite to plan.
“The Jiimaan has a slow leak, she needs more repair,” says Hinmon. “And that's fine. It means I need to work on it some more. But she touched the water today and that's all that matters.”
And, as the first round of vessels head out, Hinmon isn’t going to be left on shore. He dives right in.
“The water was calling to me, and everybody was about to go in it, and I came here to get in the water, one way or another,” he says.