Revenge of the Chippewa
Revenge of the Chippewa
Jacob, my junior high school friend, was full-blooded Tuscarora Indian. We both liked snorkeling and his Dad sold me my first snorkeling mask and fins. Occasionally we dived together in Lake Ontario, near Old Fort Niagara and the mouth of the Niagara River where my Dad and I regularly fished. The water was always murky and we never saw much, but we did our best, pretending we were members of Jacque Cousteau’s dive team exploring sunken wrecks.
Jacob lived on the Tuscarora Reservation and told me life there was tough: unemployment, alcoholism, high rates of suicide. He never let me come to his home—I think he was embarrassed by how his family lived---and we always had our Dads drop us off and pick us up at the lake. Our Fathers would greet each other with formal handshakes and talk briefly before leaving us to our sport. I think Jacob and his Dad were the first and only Indians my Dad ever met. Once I had my Dad drive me through the reservation and I was saddened by how poor the people lived in ramshackle houses surrounded by dead vehicles, and the occasional oak tree suspending an engine block on a thick chain.
When I started high school, Jacob disappeared. His family never owned a phone so we always made our snorkeling arrangements when we saw each other in school. At first I thought about Jacob off and on, but then high school life took over and I forgot him. It wasn’t until I met Nell, my wife, and learned she was part Cherokee Indian, that I thought again about Jacob and the fun times we had as kids.
I’ve never had a burning interest in Native American cultures, though enough of an interest to now and then read a book about different Indian groups, usually thinking about Jacob while doing so. Eventually I developed a serious interest in learning about world religions, which lead me to study some Native American religions.
I recently visited the Ziibiwing Center near Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, where exhibits and programs tell about the Anishinabe culture and lifeways. The name “Anishinabe” covers many Native American groups ranging from the upper Midwest, through the Great Lakes and St Lawrence basin, and down the Eastern American seaboard to the Carolinas. The Ziibiwing Center explains the general Anishinabe culture, with specific emphasis on the bands of Chippewa that settled the Central and Eastern sections of Michigan.
The Anishinabe called North America Turtle Island and the exhibits are arranged in an oval signifying a turtle shell. A nicely animated short continuous-loop film explains the basics of Anishinabe religion and how Turtle Island came to be. When the Anishinabe lived mainly on the North American east coast, prophets appeared and told the People that to survive they had to migrate west along the St Lawrence River, into the Great Lakes Basin, and on to the Upper Midwest. This is known as the Great Walk. The prophets also gave the people 7 Prophecies to guide and affect them during their migration and settlement. The Center tour tells of the Anishinabe culture though visual and auditory interpretation of the 7 Prophesies. You move from one area to another, from one Prophesy to another.
The first three Prophesies cover how the Anishinabe will live and teach in harmony and balance with nature. However, the fourth through sixth Prophecies are the kicker in that that they predict the coming of the Light-Skinned people and the near extinction of the Anishinabe through disease, murder, and the destruction of their economic world. Many Anishinabe were taken in by the treachery of the Light-Skinned people and turned their backs on the old ways, no longer speaking their language, listening to their elders, and keeping the traditions.
The genocide was near complete: The diseases of the Light-Skinned people killed a quarter of the Anishinabe, with the adults dying and leaving their infant children to starve; others who fought for their survival will murdered outright; and the clear cutting of Michigan ancient forests destroyed the animals and plants the Anishinabe needed to survive. Lewis Cass, the long-time Governor of the Michigan Territory, considered the Indians savages beyond the capacity to be “civilized.”
A wailing lament gripped the land and the People sunk toward disconsolate apathy.
The seventh, and last prophesy, said the Anishinabe will be reborn if they heed their Blood Memory--their genetic connection to their language, songs, teachings, and spirituality--and that is what the Ziibiwing Center is all about. The obvious first step in the restoration of the Anishinabe is teaching their original language, for it is their sacred language that defines them, that articulates their philosophy and relationship with Creation. Language and teaching are not the Center’s only work, but they are the most important. As you progress through the displays, the narratives are first presented in the Anishinabe language, whose sensual guttural tones ground you in the Prophesies. I understood what is being said because of the English translations that follow, but I instinctively knew I could only grasp the deep meaning of each Prophecy if I knew the original language.
The seventh Prophecy is the foundation for Anishinabe hope and the springboard for their cultural rebirth. But how to fulfill the seventh Prophecy, how to pay for what must be done?
Despite their long night of tears, the Anishinabe have always fought with the Light-Skinned people to maintain legal sovereignty over the remnants of territory left to them. Tribal sovereignty means that the Anishinabe have the legal authority to live on reservations governed by their own rules and regulations, and the Anishinabe used that legal mechanism to establish gaming casinos, which garner the resources needed to save their civilization.
After touring the Ziibiwing Center, Nell and I drove the short distance to the Soaring Eagle Casino, one of the largest casinos in Michigan, and the Center’s primary source of income. It was close to noon and we wanted to attend the Casino’s buffet lunch.
We arrived through the main entrance and were immediately engulfed in acrid stale cigarette smoke that hung in the air like poison gas over a battlefield. Everything was coated by smoke residue, including the chrome slot machines whose incessant ding and clank expanded to fill the huge room, pushing against the ceiling and windowless walls making logical thought impossible---which I guessed was the point of the place. Sitting before and feeding the machines, and milling about the cavernous toxic space, where hundreds of the grungiest unhealthy Light-Skinned people I have ever seen: drinks in hand, cigarettes dangling from lips or pinched between yellow nicotine stained fingers; red rimmed eyes; Goodwill clothes; anemic pallor; hacking coughs. If there were people of color there, I didn’t see them. However, what we also saw were large numbers of children running about acquiring the genetic damage for future lung cancer.
We left without eating lunch, walking past the valet parking holding area, then out to the parking lot where our car waited in the bright sunshine and crisp clean air. As we drove away from the casino, I said to Nell what the Anishinabe have accomplished was brilliant. They learned how to use the vices and addictions of Light-Skinned people against them. They had turned the tables and figured out how to get the Light-Skinned people to voluntarily throw away their money AND not only kill themselves off, but plant the malignant seeds that would eventually kill the Light-Skinned offspring.
As we got on the freeway heading home, I thought again about Jacob. In early summer, we took our Grandson Andrew to Niagara Falls, New York, to show him where I was born and grew-up. The City of Niagara Falls has been abandoned by the industries that used to offer good paying jobs, and now its residents live in poverty and crime. But in the downtown area, about a quarter mile from the famous Falls, is a magnificent Anishinabe casino. I smiled at the thought that perhaps Jacob was a prominent Tuscarora casino management honcho sucking the money from the Light-Skinned people now relegated to flipping burgers.