Summer Road Trip 2019: Seven Generations and Beyond in District 14


On the fourth stop of his road trip, Jeff Dwyer meets Eric Hemenway, historian for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, who discusses trauma-informed history, the deep roots of the Anishnaabe and Odawa, and so much more.

October 28, 2019

Map of Michigan.

Jeff Dwyer: Michigan is home to nearly 10 million people, a virtual melting pot of people with ancestors who came from Europe, Africa, Asia, and around the world. But before any of their ancestors stepped foot on Michigan's rich loamy soils or landed in our pristine beaches, there were already thriving indigenous peoples living right here.

Jeff Dwyer: Today, there are 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan, each with their own history and their own stories. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension, and this is Partnerships and Peninsulas.

Announcer: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas, and just like the state of Michigan, this podcast is filled with stories of amazing people who are doing wonderful work from Marquette to Monroe. Sit back and discover everything you didn't know about Michigan State University Extension. Here's your host, Jeff Dwyer.

Jeff Dwyer: Today, my guest is Eric Hemenway, director of the Department of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

Eric, as your title indicates, you have a really big and important job. And part of that job is to keep the history of your ancestors alive. Let's start by having you tell me a little bit about your history and the role that you play here.

Eric Hemenway: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to share what we do in terms of collecting history and using it to tell a story, but before I get to that portion of the talk, I want to tell a little bit about myself.

Eric Hemenway: My name is Eric Hemenway. I am an Anishnaabe/Odawa from Cross Village, Michigan. If you don't know where that is, you're really missing out. It's one of the best places in the state. All joking aside, it's up by Mackinaw between Mackinaw and Harbor Springs. That's where I grew up. I went to a one-room schoolhouse in Cross Village, one of the last one-room schoolhouses in operation in the state. And then, I graduated from Harbor Springs High School in 1995. So, very, very much a Northern Michigan guy, and my family is from Northern Michigan. My family is still in the areas in some parts.

I live now in Harbor Springs and I am the director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. I've been in my position for 13 years. So, it's climbing, but I've been a historian my whole life, of listening to different stories, going to different places that relate to native story, and trying to retain that information and use it to tell a broader picture of the Anishnaabe, the Odawa, for all audiences.

In my department, our primary goal is to collect information, curate it, and then use it to tell the story. And whether that be museum exhibit, signage, web content, publications, presentations, lectures. Whatever gets the story out, that's where we go.

We're pretty dynamic, pretty diverse in that regard, and we have a really good plethora of materials that we draw from, whether it's reports, photos, interviews, images, artifacts, so on and so forth. There is no limit to what we collect and what we do with the information.

Jeff Dwyer: And it sounds like you have a fascinating job. I'm sure you impact many, many people on a regular basis. Just curious, can you think of something in the last couple of years that you've maybe uncovered, or a photo album you found, or something you think was not only important to find but you've been able to, by making it available, have a real impact?

Eric Hemenway: There's been a few things. One I want to touch on is a collection in Vienna, Austria. And this collection is a very large collection of Odawa art from this very area of what we call Waugonawkisa, Land of the Crooked Tree, and that area is between Cross Village and Harbor Springs.

In the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, there were two German collectors who are going through this area and collecting a whole plethora of items made by Odawas here. Long story short, they took the items back to Europe, and those items survived both World Wars and then they are coming back out. They're coming back to life as we speak. And there's hundreds of these objects over there.

I made contact with the Weltmuseum Wien, that's the museum in Austria, in Vienna, and this is the equivalent to our Smithsonian. This is their national museums. I contacted them about eight years ago about a certain wampum belt. And from that conversation of this wampum belt, it turned into this working relationship. And lo and behold, they are redoing all of their exhibits throughout their entire museum system, including their North American collections. The curator I was working with, Gerard van Bussel, said, "Hey, we have something you might want to collaborate on." Once he told me what they're doing, I'm like, "Absolutely, this is what we live for."

We worked with them for over seven years. And that exhibit went up the last year, and it's part of their permanent exhibit, not just their temporary. Tnd they chose the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians as one of the primary tribes they're wanting to highlight in their North American cultures. So, if you're in Vienna, you go to the Weltmuseum Wien, you're gonna see birch bark quillwork from Harbor Springs, Cross Village. You're going to see carvings from Middle Village, Good Hart, all right there on the other side of the world. And there's this Odawa connection to it.

So, that's the one that really sticks out the most in terms of something that came out, that's always been there, but now we're using that collection through lots of lectures and lots of curriculums we're building with schools. And it's a scene, once we opened up that door with that collection, other items started to come in from private donors. They said, "We have this old quillwork. We have this old carving, we want to give it back."

Jeff Dwyer: That's absolutely fascinating. And I imagine you've been able to travel to Vienna with some of your tribal members?

Eric Hemenway: We did. We had one opportunity, and it was myself and two other tribal members, to put the finishing touches on the exhibit, with labels, some texts, some rearranging. And the country of Austria fronted the bill. So, I'm fortunate that they paid for us to go over there to do this consultation, because I don't have it in my travel budget to go to Europe. So, when they said, "Do you want to go there?" I said, "Well, I'd love to, but ..." They said, "No, we'll pay." And so we went.

Jeff Dwyer: That's outstanding. What a great collaboration. And good for you for having the curiosity to ask about that first wampum belt.

Eric Hemenway: If I didn't ask about that belt, I feel pretty positive Gerard would have reached out, but it was real serendipity that this all happened at the same time that we made this contact.

And it's part of our broader idea of working with other people to tell the story. I mean, we have all this information, we have all these resources, but if you're not partnering with other entities and organizations and groups to help tell the story, it becomes very limited on how the story gets out.

Jeff Dwyer: Right.

Eric Hemenway: So, we work a great deal with the State of Michigan. We work a great deal with our local school systems. We have a really good working relationship with the National Park Service and national parks within Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes, River Raisin, National Battlefield, Keweenaw Bay, National Lake Shore.

So, we work with the people who have these venues that tell a story. And they come to us, and we're coming to a really good point now where people are saying, "This is your story. You need to tell it."

Jeff Dwyer: So, you and I had lunch today with a number of your colleagues and it was a fascinating conversation about history-informed trauma, and about how history over generations can impact us today in a variety of ways. And I think it helped remind me that when you're doing the kind of work you're doing, there are really great, cool things, like your experience with the museum in Vienna, but sometimes you're uncovering or revisiting some things in history that maybe weren't so positive.

Maybe we could start with one of the things you mentioned, which I had not known, was that right here in this area was the last boarding school, that it was many of your tribal members that went to that boarding school. Could you talk a little bit about that and a little bit about why it's important to uncover the history even when it's difficult?

Eric Hemenway: Absolutely. That is one of the key priorities, in my mind, of being a good historian is telling the whole story. It's very easy to gravitate towards the flashy, the happy, the things that make you just want to say, "That was a good thing. What a cool thing."

It's human nature, I believe, but I have to delve into the things that make you uncomfortable, that are frustrating, that cause anger and sadness, because that's a big part of our story, just to be blunt. And just to put those facts out there for our audiences that, yes, we went through, you know, these horrific circumstances. We've been disenfranchised. There was genocide. There was displacement. All these things happened to native people including the Odawa. And that is part of our story of where we are today. Whether it be, you know, forced removals or civilization policies, but the one that really sticks out to me the most is the Indian boarding schools.

For one reason, we had a boarding school here in Harbor Springs, the Holy Childhood Indian boarding school. And Holy Childhood was the last boarding school to close in the United States in 1983. Other schools were closing in the 1920s and 30s; Holy Childhood kept going for another 40 years.

And so, we have a good number of people who survived the boarding school who are still with us today, and the impacts that has had on our community are pretty powerful. Whether it be, you know, people who have experienced abuse at these schools, or loss of language, or loss of traditions. This is all part of our story because people come up to me and say, "Eric, how come you don't speak your language?" I was like, "Well, it was systematically taken out of my community for over a hundred years." And the main tool for that extraction of language was the boarding school. So, we have to let people know that this was here and what the impact was and is today for the Odawa.

And so, we do a lot of work with it, with curriculums and signage and different things. But it's a very touchy subject because one, I didn't go to the school. I don't have that firsthand experience. And other people do. And the experiences vary so much from survivor to survivor, whether some had good experiences or horrific. So, I have a really hard time telling these stories because that's their story.

But if they're not comfortable telling the story, you can't force them. You can't make them tell the story. You just got to let it come out organically when they are ready. But I like to bring that awareness that the boarding school existed, but the boarding school was under this larger idea that Indians needed to be civilized. That's my part of the contribution.

Jeff Dwyer: So, Eric, as I listened to you, the passion you have for this work, the passion you have for the Little Traverse Bay Band, for the people that you work with, is really just clear in your voice. I can see it in your face. Our listeners cannot, but I certainly can. Can you talk to me a little bit about what it means to you as an individual to be an Odawa Indian?

Eric Hemenway: Everything comes from where I'm from in Cross Village and my upbringing, my community out there, and my family, my mom, my grandma, are all Odawa. And my friends who are extended family, Odawa in the village, Cross Village. You know, taking care of each other.

I grew up quite poor. I'm pretty frank with that. You know, I grew up in a quite a bit of poverty, didn't have a lot materially. I mean, we had community and family. We were rich in that, but with money, we were pretty poor. And having that upbringing, you play on your strengths, and that's your people. So, that's where my foundation comes from is being with those people who instilled in me the pride of being native, being an Anishinaabe, an Odawa, being proud of where you're from and always recognizing that people went through much more difficult circumstances to make sure that you are here today.

I mean, my mom always made sure that . . . there is people who went through extreme circumstances, whether it be starvations or removals or forced assimilation so I can be here. So, always be cognizant that people put themselves through hell at some point so you can be here.

So that idea of looking back was instilled very young. But then, also, growing up in an environment with my mom and my family where they were doing something that was quite remarkable at the time, and they were pushing towards what we call federal reaffirmation. And no other tribe in the country had done this. We were fighting for our treaty rights and for justice and just being in our homelands.

So, at times it was borderline militant in my home. And I'm really grateful for that. My mom was fiery, and they had to be. They were going, at that time, you know, we didn't have the casino. We didn't have any federal income pouring in. It was just all synergy and all community involvement. And we were the first tribe to get federal reaffirmation, the congressional piece of legislation saying that this reaffirms a federal trust relationship between the United States and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa. We were the first tribe to do this.

So we took an extremely different route, one that we were very confident in. And we had to be. My mom was right in the mix of that. So I'm very fortunate to be part of that.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, thank you very much for sharing that. A little earlier this afternoon, I had a chance to spend some time talking with Stella Kay, the tribal vice chair of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, and she mentioned that she had just earlier today actually been rereading the constitution for the Little Traverse Band, and that in the preamble it talks about an obligation to seven generations. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Eric Hemenway: I can tell you my understanding of it. Everybody has a different . . . through a different lens. And how I understand this was told to me by one of my elders of time, and the elder was explaining it to me, and he grabbed a string or a small piece of rope that was sitting on a table. And he held it from hand to hand in a straight line. And he said, "This is the Western concept of time. You have a beginning and an end. And in between, you have all of these dates." A timeline. Like, "Okay, I get this."

He goes, "Native time, in the Anishinaabe time," he just simply took it and made a circle. He goes, "This is native time, it's perpetual. It always goes in a circle. There is no beginning, there is no ending, and the focus is on, not the dates but the events that happened. We focused on what happened and the repercussions, not so much the exact time period or the date."

So in my mind that's the seven gens. It doesn't have a beginning or an end, and you're always looking forward to the next seven generations, but you're always looking back from the seventh generations that provided for today. So it's this big circle that just never ends.

Jeff Dwyer: And you're right, it is a very different way from the way most of us from the West think about those concepts. So, I know that you work closely with MSU Extension in different ways. Could you talk a little bit about the nature of a couple of those programs and what you think has been valuable about the collaboration?

Eric Hemenway: Yeah. We work with MSU Extension on a multitude of programs when they need to have some history, basically. You know, very generic term, but it can go a long ways. If they need some history or some resources, they contact us.

We've done programs together on native quilting and what that means for tribal communities. It goes beyond just simply making a blanket. There's a lot of cultural contexts to quilting, just like other cultures. We've done this at public libraries. And I just came from a presentation or a program that we're working on together for our local community on the historical trauma. MSU is one of the facilitators for this program that's being delivered for our tribal courts. So I contribute to the history portion of this.

MSUE staff is one of the facilitators, and going to be doing any presentation for a 4-H group next week. And one of the organizers for that 4-H group is an MSU Extension employee. So, it's all over the place.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, we sure appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with you in all those different ways and look forward to even more opportunities in the future.

And I appreciate you taking the time today. This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer and I am the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Eric Hemenway. Thank you very much for being here with us today.

Eric Hemenway: Miigwech, thank you.