On a chilly morning, 118 autumns ago, the residents of a tiny village along a lake in Northern Michigan were forced out of their homes and kicked off the land they had legally purchased.
The residents were native people, members of what was then called the Cheboiganing Band of Indians. There’s some evidence native people had been living at that site for thousands of years.
But since that morning, on Oct. 15, 1900, their land has been in the hands of others. And the descendants of those who were there that morning are still fighting for justice and recognition in the courts today.
"Some of 'em don't care"
I’m standing next to a chain link fence on a quiet road next to Burt Lake in Cheboygan County. Next to me, on the other side of the fence, is Ken Parkey. He has on a brown hooded sweatshirt, blue work pants, and a black cap with sunglasses perched on the rim. Parkey grew up around here, a few miles up the road. He’s an elder in the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, descended from the same people who were forced off this property 118 years ago.
I get my phone out to find a picture online of what the village here used to look like.
“That’s the village,” Parkey says, seeing the old blurry black and white photo. The image shows two rows of log cabins, with a dirt road running through the middle.
“That must’ve been this road right through here,” Parkey says, nodding over to the paved road next to us now.
He then points across the road.
“The church would have been up in here,” he says, pointing to overgrown side-yard of a small house. “Up in that area right there.”
That area, where the Burt Lake Band’s church once stood, is private property now. Most of the area around here is. It’s dotted with multimillion dollar homes along the water – every Michigan person’s dream of a getaway property up north.
But not where Ken and I are standing, next to the chain-link fence. This spot is a cemetery. A small patch of land, with white crosses in rows. The people who lived here before 1900 were Christian, converted by the French. They had a church, and a cemetery.
Ken thinks the cemetery used to be a lot bigger.
“I swear to God that cemetery went over there, a little bit farther beyond that road that goes down,” he says, looking over at a driveway that runs along the edge of the fence and down to the water. “I think that was part of the cemetery myself. And they just put a road down through there.”
“All these people know they’re living on top of your ancestors?” I ask.
“Some of ‘em do,” Ken says with a chuckle. “Some of ‘em don’t care.”
“I guess I shouldn’t talk,” I say. “That’s just the way it is in a lot of America. I live in Grand Rapids. It’s not that it’s much different. It’s just that here, you know where it is.”
Ken gives a bit of a shrug.
We stand and talk a few more minutes, then he gets back to what he was doing before, what he’s been doing since he was a boy, keeping the cemetery in shape. For now, that means mowing the grass.
It is not news to anyone to hear a group of native people were forced off their land by white people. But what happened on this piece of land was a bit different.
The Burt Lake Band, then known as the Cheboiganing Band, had kept this land as a reservation after signing the treaty that gave most of Michigan to the U.S. government. Later, when the government was taking back some reservation lands, Cheboiganing leaders got money together and bought the land outright. The governor of Michigan kept the land in trust.
Because tribes are their own government entities, they generally don’t pay property taxes. But, in the late 1800s, Cheboygan County officials decided to assess taxes on this land anyway. When the tribe didn’t pay, the land went into foreclosure. That’s when it was bought by a land speculator by the name of John McGinn.
When the native people still refused to leave, McGinn got together a group of white folks from town and headed to what they called “Indian Village” for a confrontation. One of the members of the group was the Cheboygan County sheriff at the time. His name was Fred Ming.
So, McGinn, Ming and the others came into the village on the morning of October 15, 1900. The stories say the men of the village were gone that day. The white men ordered the women and children out of the cabins. They tossed the belongings into the road, and the men set fire to the homes.
"They've never heard of this"
“I’ll tell you irony,” says Don Parkey, another descendent and a relative of Ken’s. I’m sitting with him at his kitchen table, alongside his wife Nola. “When McGinn took his men in there and burnt down that village, they didn’t burn down the church. Because, you know, that would be wrong.”
Don is quick to a joke. Nola is quick to laugh. He has a salt and pepper goatee, and a shirt that says ‘Life is Good.’ Her shirt is red, with buttons. They both hold official titles in their tribal government, for what’s now called the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
While we sit, Nola has a stack of papers on the table, the documentation of what happened that fall day in Burt Lake.
“A lot of people, they’ve never heard of this,” she says. “And I think maybe the state of Michigan likes it that way.”
Because if no one hears about it, nothing has to be done about it.
And there’s lots that could be done - starting with the most obvious, returning the land.
Much of what used to be the Burt Lake Band’s land has been broken up into private lots with summer homes. It is waterfront property up north, after all. But it’s not all homes. Some of the the Burt Lake Band’s land has been bought up for conservation. A large part of it is now owned by the Little Traverse Land Conservancy. Another part is owned by the University of Michigan.
“Would you say that at this point the members would support and want this land back?” I ask Nola.
“Oh gosh yes,” she says. “Oh heavens yes. That land down there that they have, that’s the reservation.”
“That’s our traditional home,” Don says.
But Nola and Don say the members of the Burt Lake Band aren’t really pushing right now for anyone to give up any land. That’s because they have their hands tied up with another fight.
This one is much more bureaucratic, much more difficult to wrap your head around.
They’re trying to prove they exist.
Specifically, they’re trying to prove to the federal government that the Burt Lake band should be a recognized tribe.
The fight for recognition
Members of the Burt Lake Band say they’ve always been a tribe. Their tribal leaders signed the treaties in 1836 and 1855 with the federal government. State leaders in Michigan treated them as a tribe.
But officially on the books today, the Burt Lake Band doesn’t exist.
“The injustice is pretty obvious,” says Bruce Hamlin, who serves as tribal chairman for the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
Hamlin says recognition matters because without it, members of the band can’t get the rights that were guaranteed to them in the treaties signed by the federal government. Those include the right to hunt and fish on public lands. And other benefits that have been given to native tribes over the years, including access to health care and school financial aid.
“You know when you sign a treaty — you make a promise,” Hamlin says. “You’re supposed to keep a promise. So all those things are important to us.”
The problem of recognition for the Burt Lake band dates back to 1934, when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act. It was supposed to help tribes. But it also created a list. The list of federally recognized tribes. To get on the list, a tribe had to meet one of three criteria.
The one that got most of today’s tribes recognized: having land.
When the Burt Lake Band members applied in 1935, they didn’t have land. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs never even responded to the application. The Bureau still hasn’t. The Band tried again to apply in the 1980s. Members waited almost two decades for a response, then were rejected.
In 2017, the Burt Lake Band sued the BIA. That case is still moving its way through the system, with another hearing scheduled for January.
If all of this sounds exhausting, it is.
This fight for bureaucratic recognition has been going on now for generations. Thousands and thousands of pages of documents, including detailed family genealogies, were turned in to the federal government.
“It’s almost a joke when you look back at it,” says Nola Parkey. “I don’t know. I just pray that it all goes good this time. If it doesn’t …”
“I have a sense that people won’t quit,” I say.
“Very good,” says Don. “Consistency is the one thing we have going for us.”
A "moral obligation"
There is one more little item in the history of the Burt Lake Band to consider, one more little avenue that might bring some sense of justice to what happened 118 years ago.
After the cabins were burned that morning in 1900, and the people of the tribe forced off their land, there was an outcry across the state. The Detroit papers wrote about it. People in Lansing took notice.
In 1903, the state House and Senate passed a joint resolution to try to help the Burt Lake Band, which at that time was called the Cheboiganing band. One part of the resolution said “There seems to be at least a moral obligation upon the part of the State to restore the land to this band of Indians.”
The resolution called for the state to set aside up to 400 acres of public land for the band to use.
Burt Lake Band members say that land from the state never came through. It’s been more than a century. But they say maybe the state could make good on the resolution today.
Living a lie
I want to end this story where we began the series four days ago, with the voice of Willie Jennings. Jennings is a professor at Yale Divinity School. He grew up in Grand Rapids. He is a Christian, and he has this idea about dirt. That dirt is what we came from, dirt is what we share. Dirt is our land, our place, ourselves. He says, for our own sake, we have to look deeply at the history of places, city by city, and ask how do we move forward together?
“Now, for some people, they imagine that because the land originally was stolen from indigenous peoples, ‘Well there’s nothing we can do,'" Jennings says. "No, there’s much we can do, because in many places in this country, those same indigenous peoples are still there. And we ought to take very seriously what it means to think about that this land was taken from them. And we must have serious conversations about returning the land.
"Now for some people, that’s just outrageous, ‘Oh, there’s no way.’ But here’s the problem: The problem of not taking seriously the history of a place means that no matter how moral, or ethical, or upright, or Christian you might imagine yourself being, if you don’t want to take seriously the history of a place, then at the deepest levels of life, you’re living a lie.”