Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 16, 2012

Loraine Anderson: Heroes in back yard

Local columnist

— I was going through some old Record-Eagle clip files the other day when a 1976 story fell from a folder marked "Indians."

"Peshawbestown home fix-up done," the headline said. The story noted the completion of a $150,000 federal HUD project that brought water, septic tanks and toilets to 27 family homes.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Dodie Harris, a Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians elder, told me during an interview two years ago that most homes in Peshawbestown had no running water or inside plumbing when she graduated from high school in 1965.

"A laundromat was put up by the church with a shower for men and one for women," she said. "It had four washers and two dryers. It's where everyone went for water."

Still, the story stunned me. 1976 was the year of the nation's bicentennial celebration, for goodness' sake. Most U.S. homes had running water and inside toilets by then, as did homes on many federally recognized reservations.

The story also reminded me of the importance of the American civil rights movement during the 1950s through the 1970s, embodied and celebrated in Martin Luther King Jr. Day today.

This day does more than honor King's courage, leadership and commitment to peace, social justice and nonviolence. It underlines important American principles like democracy, freedom, and equality of our laws for all Americans, regardless of race, religion or national origin. It reminds us of times our nation miserably failed to practice what it preaches. It unfolds heroic stories of long national struggles for equal treatment and social justice.

We don't have to look far in northwestern lower Michigan to find tragic examples of prejudice and discrimination. Locally, they were institutionalized in broken 19th century federal Indian treaties and assimilation policies.

It wasn't until 1924 that the federal government officially classified American Indians as "citizens" and gave them the right to vote in national elections. Ironically, our nation's First People had already fought in three wars for the United States of America.

We have important civil rights heroes in our own backyard -- the men and women who founded and joined the Michigan Indian Defense Association in 1933, The Michigan Indian Foundation in 1947 and the Northern Michigan Ottawa Association in 1948 to advocate for self-government and federal affirmation of their treaty rights. They also worked to keep their culture, traditions and sense of community alive in dire economic times.

Some of the names: Andrew Blackbird, Jonas Shawandase, Ben Peshaba (Dodie Harris' grandfather), Joe Chingwa, Edward Hall, Paul Ahgosa, Alex Wasaquom and George Sands in the 1930s, Waunetta and Robert Dominic, Levi McClellan, William Ance and Anthony Chingman in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Their work and that of many others led to a landmark 1979 federal ruling that affirmed treaty rights and paved the way for re-established federal tribal status of many northern Michigan Indian bands, qualifying them for federal health, housing, education, economic development programs and grants.