Native American students and faculty submit inquiry to Bio Station land

Thursday, December 7, 2017 - 8:41pm

Native American Studies students and faculty submitted a request to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel’s office Wednesday to investigate whether the land on which the University's Biological Station sits belongs to the Burt Lake Band of Odawa and Ojibwa Native American tribes.

According to the statement, in the late 1800s, Cheboygan County had been illegally taxing Native lands granted to them in the Treaty of Detroit. The Burt Lake Band failed to pay these taxes and their deeds were then sold to Watts S. Humphrey and John McGinn. However, the Burt Lake Band refused to leave this property.

Stanford University professor Richard White wrote about this tribe in his ethnohistorical report that was included in the request. On Oct. 15, 1900, Sheriff Fred Ming and his deputies went into the Burt Lake Band village, evicted the Native Americans, poured kerosene on their homes and lit them on fire as the people watched, sparing only the village’s church. Today, members of the Burt Lake Band are dispersed throughout the state of Michigan.

The 10,000-acre University Biological Station was established in 1909 to study environmental change. The University acquired the land from lumber barons after the trees were cleared, allowing students to study the fire-ravaged environment. Since its conception, the forest has rejuvenated, providing a place for biological and environmental field work for students and faculty.

According to the request written by John M. Petoskey, an enrolled member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Burt Lake Band of Odawa and Ojibwa people lived less than five miles from the current UMBS, which was established after the burnout. His request is threefold: that the University of Michigan create curriculum on the burnout for students who attend UMBS, to work with descendants of the Burt Lake Band to commemorate the burnout through a memorial at UMBS and that UMBS, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and School for Environment and Sustainability include in its curriculum indigenous perspectives on resource management, environmental history, ecology and environmental justice.

LSA senior Elizabeth Michaelson spent three summers at UMBS taking classes and working. She studied freshwater ecology, forest ecology and soil samples from the region of the fire.

“It's known, at the biological station, of Native American archaeological deposits or storage in the ground and the Native American presences (are) known and understood and somewhat talked about,” Michaelson said.

Michaelson could not recall whether she heard about the story of the Burt Lake Band burnout from sitting around the campfire or from those working at the UMBS. She recalls Native American tribal maps located at UMBS but said she did not know UMBS opened so recently following the fire.

“There is no way in this small quiet area that (the University) didn’t know about this,” Michaelson said. “I think that (Petoskey’s) requests from the biological station are very doable.”

Based on her experiences at the UMBS, Michaelson feels that UMBS would be receptive to Petoskey’s requests. She said UMBS cultivated community conversation about difficult topics that emotionally effect students.

“Through my summers at the bio station, whenever anything horrible or scary would happen, whether on campus or off, there would always be community conversation about what is happening and how we can move forward and support each other,” Michaelson said. “I think that the biological station would be willing to move forward with these requests.”

Petoskey posted the documents on Facebook. As an Anishinaabe student, he wrote he “cannot reconcile the University’s idea of inclusiveness with its past.” 

“It is likely that the University of Michigan benefitted from this tragedy,” he stated in the post. “I think it is incumbent upon this university to put into practice it's rhetoric of inclusiveness by commemorating this tragedy in a respectful manner, requiring a Native American Studies and history course for students at the biostation, and improve and expand curriculum of Indigenous environmental justice.”

Jim Petoskey, cousin of Petoskey, and member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa Chippewa Indians, told a personal connection to the burnout. He recalled being taught Anishinaabe, his tribe’s language, by Mabel Shomin, a fellow Band member, in 1985. He noticed she wore a wig, uncommon of elderly women at the time. One day in class, she hit her head on a cabinet door, which moved the wig and revealed noticeable scars. After class, Jim had asked her about her scars and she told her story. She said at the age of 3 or 4 a sheriff had burned out all of the natives homes to gain access to the Burt Lake.

“I am happy they are finally looking into it and the story is going to finally be told,” Jim said. “Her story needs to be told as well and all of the people who were burned out of their homes for greed and racism.”

The University declined to comment prior to publication.