Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's June 2021 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
The name of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore embodies the culture of Michigan’s first land and water stewards, and thousands of years of geological evolution.
Park visitors have opportunity to discover these footprints through time.
Sleeping Bear’s massive coastal dunes are part of a 2 million-year earth story, according to geologists, while Native Americans as early as 11,000-8,000 B.C.E. fished, hunted, foraged and developed a rich culture alongside its Lake Michigan shores.
Sleeping Bear’s dunes, its forests, and lakes speak volumes to those who pay attention.
“The spirit is in the sands and water. But you have to take the time to listen,” said Julie Den Uyl, Sleeping Bear Tour Co. founder and former Sleeping Bear park interpretive ranger.
The Anishinabek listened for centuries. This ancestral land remains a sacred part of the identity of the Ottawa (Odawa), Chippewa (Ojibwe) and Potawatomi (Bodawotomi), collectively known as the Anishinabek people.
Some say the Sleeping Bear narrative, for which the park is named, represents stolen identity.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a federal Indian agent in Michigan, in 1856 was the first to publish the popularized Sleeping Bear narrative. Although Schoolcraft’s wife was part-Ojibwe, a school of scholars claim the narrative he commercialized could only have been a loose translation, likely lacking accuracy and cultural context of the Anishinabek.
The American Indians in Children’s Literature, an organization dedicated to providing critical analysis of books for youth, suggests Schoolcraft’s story, and later published versions of the Sleeping Bear narrative, are nothing short of exploitative.
The narrative Schoolcraft promoted tells the story of a mother bear and her two cubs who swam Lake Michigan to flee famine occurring in Wisconsin. The cubs tire and drown. The mother bear, after reaching Michigan’s coast, perches herself along the shore in eternal watch for her young. Her figure is silhouetted in the outline of a massive dune.
In 2020, when Den Uyl served as park ranger, she learned the narrative, which even the National Park Service forwarded, was not altogether true to the Anishinabek oral tradition.
“In the oral tradition, the bear family escapes fire, not famine, and an important element is missing — that of the Great Spirit Manitou who raises the islands in honor of the two cubs,” she said. “Small details, but pertinent.”
Den Uyl continued, “As this is a very old oral tradition, we may never know the original sharing, but I believe oral traditions were shared for a greater purpose than storytelling.They provide all of us spiritual life guidance.”
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for the past several years has prioritized educating visitors of the park’s Anishinabek connection as an integrated part of its mission.
Collaborations with the federally recognized Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and other tribes, informs the effort.
“We know in looking back at history, there have been wrongs done to our native people,” said Emily Sunblade, Sleeping Bear education technician. “We can’t fix what happened in the past, but we can acknowledge what happened.”
The National Park Service’s dedicated funding for Sleeping Bear’s indigenous-related programming supports several initiatives, including the hiring staff knowledgeable in Anishinabek history and culture.
Classroom courses developed for middle and high school students are focusing on broadening historical perspectives. Sunblade said Sleeping Bear school programs communicate the idea that “the dominant narrative and version of history and culture may not be the only version.”
Opportunities for park visitors to learn of Anishinabek history and culture include artifact displays at the Empire Visitor Center and Glen Haven Cannery Boathouse museum. Both offer a look into tribal craftsmanship and customs. A film for visitor viewing now in production incorporates the legacies of Sleeping Bear’s earliest inhabitants. Also, every ranger-led interpretive talk includes information gleaned through tribal collaborations.
Park employee training supports bringing an accurate picture of the Anishinabek to visitors.
“The goal in partnering with the tribe is so that it’s not rangers in uniform telling someone else’s’ story,” Sunblade said. “There is power in having somebody who has true connection to the tribe.”
Session leader Eric Hemenway, an Anishinaabe/Odawa from Cross Village, director of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian serves as tribal liaison to the national lakeshore. Also a member of the Michigan Historical Commission, Hemenway has guided park visitors on history hikes, sharing his intimate knowledge of the area’s Native American chronicle.
In the Michigan State University Extension podcast, Partnerships and Peninsulas, Hemenway told host Jeff Dwyer that he believes it’s important for historians to relate the entire story — the good and the tragic.
“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,” Hemenway said.
With more than 1.6 million park visitors annually, opportunities abound for spreading awareness of the true forces shaping Sleeping Bear’s character, beauty and commanding historic presence.
“The lakeshore is a sacred space for Anishinaabe and many people who visit can feel the power,” said Den Uyl. “It only makes sense to learn about the first stewards of the lakeshore — who are the Anishinabek.”