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MSU students, community members celebrate Michigan Indian Day

September 25, 2023
Visitors to the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center in Okemos enjoy their potluck dinner on Michigan Indian Day on Sept. 22, 2023.
Visitors to the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center in Okemos enjoy their potluck dinner on Michigan Indian Day on Sept. 22, 2023.

On Friday, students from Michigan State University Indigenous student organizations Timetzalimet and the Native American Indigenous Student Organization, or NAISO, held a community potluck at the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center to celebrate Michigan Indian Day. 

Michigan Indian Day was established in 1974, an act that local elder Joe Webster helped pass. The holiday aims to bring attention to the cultural significance of Native Americans, as well as their contributions to Michigan's history.

Michigan State University itself is a land grant university, or an institution of higher education that benefits from the Morrill Act. The act granted federally controlled land to U.S. states to establish primarily agricultural colleges. According to MSU’s Land Acknowledgement, the university occupies the contemporary Lands of the Anishinaabeg: Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples.

For many Indigenous students and community members, being reminded of that can be isolating.

“The people really haven't had a place to go,” Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center President Mary Mireles said. “So it was important that we turn this around and make (the center) a Native American Center where the community felt comfortable.”

Mireles is Apache, and a long way from her tribe in Texas. For Natives far away from home like her, events like Michigan Indian Day at the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center allow them to partake in practices they would normally do on reservations.

One practice, the sacred fire, allows people to say a prayer to their creator by dropping some tobacco into a fire. Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center Executive Director John Ostrander spent much of the potluck sitting by and maintaining a fire.

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Ostrander said the tradition is over a thousand years old.

“You can go across America and still find each tribe doing this,” Ostrander said.

In addition to hosting community gatherings, Nokomis also provides education for local schools. Ostrander said an important part of that is breaking down misconceptions and myths about Michigan Native Americans.

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One common misconception is the way many people associate Native Americans only with hunting and gathering. Instead, Ostrander said, Michigan Native Americans set up an expansive and successful trade network that spanned across the country. 

One artifact of the network is a 200 year-old pot found in Marshall, Michigan that was later discovered to have come from the Mississippi Valley. The pot is currently housed in glass case in Nokomis, along with a variety of other artifacts from local tribes.

“Most of the time when they teach about Michigan history, it's taught from a European standpoint,” Ostrander said. “What we do is we back it up (to) who the Anishinaabe were and their contributions.”

Mireles said that in the years since COVID, Nokomis has seen an increase in schools reaching out to them. For example, she said, Okemos schools asked them to continue giving lessons past the third grade level. 

Beyond history and cultural education, Nokomis also provides language education. Ostrander said this was especially important because many facets of American history have prevented languages like Anishinaabemowin from being spoken. 

Ostrander said the last person in his family to speak Anishinaabemowin fluently was his grandmother, who came to Michigan in 1865 from Saskatchewan.

Julia Tehauno, secretary of MSU Indigenous student organization Timetzalimet, shares a similar experience; the last people in her family to speak her language were her great-grandparents, Tehauno said. 

In order to keep cultural traditions alive, she said, celebrations like Michigan Indian Day are essential.

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“We just need to have somewhere we can come together and be proud,” Tehauno said.

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Co-chair of MSU North American Indigenous Student Organization, or NAISO, and social work senior Roxy Sprowl is a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Sprowl said it is not uncommon for native students to come across professors teaching inaccurate Indigenous history, as well as other students who aren't aware of the existence of Native Americans in today's society.

“It's still definitely very much a work in progress,” Sprowl said.

Sprowl said accessible education is especially important for Indigenous students.

“Native students have some of the lowest retention rates, some of the lowest graduation rates, and some of the lowest enrollment rates of any other racial or ethnic group,” she said.

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