“Pure Michigan” and Its Indigenous Storytellers

The Anishinaabe people living in Michigan and the Great Lakes region have been telling their stories for years. Much of the general public remains oblivious to these stories and the sacredness behind some of Michigan’s most popular natural creations. Still, storytellers within Anishinaabe communities continue to pass down the teachings of their elders, along with stories of their own. Cover graphic by Angie Ling for Midstory.

In first grade, my teacher read aloud a series of children’s books about the history behind some of Michigan’s most well-known natural landmarks, including a particularly memorable tale of the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes. We gathered around her, eyes wide, mouths parted at each turn of a page, a collective whisper gathering like dust on the colorful carpet of the classroom floor when her voice grew loud, then quiet, then silent

The most popular version of the story goes something like this: one day, a mother bear and her cubs swam across the water in an attempt to escape an encroaching fire. The cubs, however, grew too tired to make it across, eventually drowning. In her sorrow, the mother bear laid down on the shore and slipped into an eternal slumber, forever waiting for her cubs to return to her. The Great Spirit Manitou covered the mother bear with sand, forming Sleeping Bear’s largest dune, and then created two islands — the North and South Manitou — in honor of the fallen cubs. 

I learned two things on those read-aloud days: first, give first graders a good narrator, and you will receive, in return, their undivided attention. It is a rare but wonderful thing. Second, the motto “Pure Michigan” exists for a reason. The state I lived in was a beautiful place to call home.

A decade passed before I would come to a third realization: these stories were rooted in Indigenous traditions, and the author of the books my first-grade teacher introduced to us was, oddly enough, white.

Nationally recognized for its abundance of natural beauty, Michigan is just as rich in Indigenous history and culture. Long before the first French settlers arrived at the mitten-shaped plot of land roughly halfway through the 17th century, Native peoples had already been living in the Great Lakes region for at least 10,000 years prior. Michigan is currently home to twelve federally recognized tribes. Its three largest tribes, the Odawa (or Ottawa), Ojibwe (or Chippewa) and Potawatomi (or Bode’wadmi) are collectively known as the Anishinaabe.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, an expansive stretch of land that spans 35 miles of Lake Michigan’s northeast shore, is one of the state’s most famous destinations. Known for its idyllic scenery and sand dunes that rise several hundred feet tall, Sleeping Bear typically attracts over a million visitors every year. 

Lesser known, however, is the dunes’ Anishinaabe history, which is often named as the source of the “legend” I heard in my first-grade class.  

But there are a few discrepancies with this popularized retelling. First, many Indigenous people believe that to refer to any Native creation story as a “legend” or a “myth” implies a degree of fiction or lack of truth behind these stories, when the stories themselves are a significant part of Indigenous culture rooted in the vast knowledge of elders. Eric Hemenway, historian for the LTBB (Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians), grew up hearing these stories and recognizing their importance as something far greater. 

“There’s a lot of cultural sensitivity around these stories. There’s protocols [for] telling the stories and who tells them and what time of year,” he said. My advice would be to acknowledge that these stories still exist. And that they’re not just stories, and that they’re part of a belief system for many Anishinaabe.”

On the shore of Sleeping Bear Dunes. By Logan Sander for Midstory.

Many of these teachings originated as oral traditions rather than written accounts. With each retelling, then, the story tends to shift — at least marginally — depending on who its narrator is. Another important characteristic of oral traditions, especially those told in a different language, is the nuance and cultural significance that can never be fully conveyed through translation or transcription. Hemenway recalled that the most recent creation story he heard was four years ago, and “the guy had to come [down] from Minnesota … he would only speak Anishinaabe … and it took him two full days to tell the story.” 

While these stories have existed for thousands of years through oral traditions, some of their first written descriptions were made by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a white, American geographer born in 1793. Schoolcraft first visited Michigan in the 1820s; after spending several decades in the Great Lakes region, he started publishing books about Native traditions and relations. These books contained the first written description of Sleeping Bear’s creation. Schoolcraft’s wife, Jane Johnston, was of Ojibwe descent, leading many to suspect that she supplied the source material of his writings. 

Over a decade since I sat on the schoolroom floor, listening to what I now recognize as potentially problematic retellings of Indigenous stories, contemporary conversations around history, culture and storytelling lead us to ask further questions about work like Schoolcraft’s: Although he may have been genuinely interested in Indigenous culture, was he really in a position to document Anishinaabe teachings? And how could he have possibly captured the cultural nuances that came with each story? 

The short answer is that he couldn’t have. Even today, non-Indigenous people try — and often fail — to accurately depict Indigenous stories. While they might have had good intentions, authors who do so risk painting these Anishinaabe stories as little more than some sort of whimsical, mythical lore..

Meredith Kennedy, a member of the LTBB, is an Anishinaabe storyteller herself. Kennedy was a member of the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan and an education director for the LTBB for seventeen years. 

In 2020, Kennedy left her position in the LTBB government and opened up Native North Tours and Storytelling with Yvonne Walker-Keshick, an award-winning quill artist and fellow member of the LTBB. Native North Tours is a small business that offers walking and driving tours around Little Traverse Bay, presentations for professional development and storytelling.

Sleeping Bear also isn’t the only part of Michigan that holds a sacred place in Anishinaabe history. From Mackinac Island to Pictured Rocks to the Great Lakes themselves, some of the most notable natural treasures in the Great Lakes region have ancient origin stories. For Kennedy, a few local spots, in particular, come to mind. 

A distant sunset on the Serpent’s Back. Image courtesy of Meredith Kennedy.

First is the Serpent’s Back. According to Kennedy, many years ago, the Creator sent a giant serpent to the Odawa people living there because of their poor treatment towards one another. The serpent “[rose] out of Round Lake and came to devour everything in sight,” but the community prayed together in hopes that the underwater panther that lived under the Great Lakes, Mishipeshu, would save them. The panther agreed to help them on two conditions: they would promise to behave themselves afterwards, and he would be able to live in Little Traverse Bay. 

And so a thrilling fight ensued between the panther and the serpent. Finally, Mishipeshu came out of the water, victorious, and flung the serpent’s body towards the east side of the bay — where the sunrise meets the shore. With each sunrise, the Anishinaabe would now be reminded of what they promised Mishipeshu. Each of the seven bumps of the serpent’s back represents one of the seven teachings of the Anishinaabe.

There are also two popular ski hills in the Little Traverse Bay area: Nubs Nob and Boyne Highlands. In Kennedy’s community, though, they are actually known as the “Nookomis” and “Mishoomis,” which means the “grandmother” and “grandfather” hills. 

“[They are] the two largest landforms in our community … which no one knows the story around,” Kennedy said. “They just think, ‘Oh, no, those are ski hills.’ No, those are sacred to us. They teach us — as Anishinaabe people — to always love, which is one of our seven teachings.”

The Nookomis from afar. Image courtesy of Meredith Kennedy.
The Mishoomis from afar. Image courtesy of Meredith Kennedy.

Michigan attracts millions of visitors for its natural attractions, but few of those visitors are aware of the Anishinaabe teachings behind the hills and dunes that they trod on. 

In “Anishinaabe 101,” one of Native North’s signature presentations, Kennedy touches upon the ugly history of Native treatment in America. Genocide, “smallpox blankets,” Indian boarding schools” — these, too, are stories, but stories of the colonization, forced assimilation and trauma that Native communities have endured in America. 

The power of storytelling, however, has also helped Indigenous people learn more about their own heritage and reconnect with their communities. One of Kennedy’s specialties, for instance, is free tours for individuals who identify as Indigenous. 

“I will never be a gatekeeper for the language or the knowledge that I have in my own community,” she said, explaining why she chose to offer Indigenous-only tours. “Because in order for us to regain our power as Native people, we need to know our stories and our history.”

Through collaborating with TOPOnexus, a nonprofit based in Harbor Springs, Kennedy was able to bring her storytelling work into local schools. One of the highlights of her experience was being able to tell stories like the creation of Turtle Island, also known as the Earth, to Indigenous youth.

“[I got to] see other little Native kids and their faces light up because they recognize what a ribbon skirt looks like,” Kennedy said. “and they know they’re not alone in that space,” Kennedy said. 

Contemporary Indigenous storytellers have also made their voices heard through a wide range of genres, mediums and audiences. Carter Meland, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, published his own book in 2017. “Stories for a Lost Child” depicts “a high school-aged girl … who doesn’t know anything about her Ojibwe heritage” until she receives a box of stories written by her grandfather in the mail. 

The book was partially inspired by Meland’s own experience growing up without any knowledge of his Anishinaabe heritage. While Meland was in graduate school, his father found out that his biological father — Meland’s grandfather — was Ojibwe, spurring Meland to explore Indigenous culture and literature. He cites Thomas King, a Cherokee writer, as one of his first creative inspirations, along with Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Silko. 

An Ojibwe author from Michigan, Angeline Boulley made headlines with her first novel “Firekeeper’s Daughter” in 2021. The book takes place in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and follows an Ojibwe teenager and the mysterious events that start to unsettle her community. “Firekeeper’s Daughter” was a New York Times bestseller and is now in the works for a Netflix mini-series adaptation, with many readers celebrating its Indigenous representation and suspense-ridden plotline.

A glimpse of the bridge connecting Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the setting of Boulley’s debut novel, to Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. Image courtesy of Fungus Guy.

The Anishinaabe stories of the Great Lakes region may not be as well recognized as the breathtaking landscapes they enliven, but the two are inextricably intertwined.

“Acknowledging that the stories exist is a big step … and [they have] power and meaning,” Hemenway said. “And it’s rooted in the Great Lakes. It’s rooted in Michigan.”

To learn more about Anishinaabe storytelling, consider booking a tour with Native North Tours & Storytelling or reading some of the contemporary stories by Anishinaabe authors below. For a broader dive into Indigenous works, consider 28 New Books by Indigenous Authors.

Firekeeper’s Daughter
Stories for a Lost Child
Gichigami Hearts
Murder on the Red River
This Town Sleeps
The Round House

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here