Eric Hemenway shares history, culture and repatriation of the Anishinaabek Odawa tribe

Thursday, October 17, 2019 - 7:49pm

Eric Hemenway, Anishnaabe/Odawa tribe member, speaks on Odawa history, culture, and repatriation at the Institute for Social Research Thursday morning.

Eric Hemenway, Anishnaabe/Odawa tribe member, speaks on Odawa history, culture, and repatriation at the Institute for Social Research Thursday morning. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research hosted Eric Hemenway, an Anishinaabe/Odawa from Cross Village, Mich., on Thursday morning to speak about the history, culture and repatriation of the Anishinaabek Odawa tribe. About 85 students, faculty and staff attended the event.

Hemenway is the director of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian, a federally recognized tribe in northern Michigan. He has done extensive work with the repatriation of Native American remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act by working with museums and universities, and has brought roughly 300 people back to their homelands, according to his website. 

Hemenway began by acknowledging the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Bodewadmi tribes who are indigenous to the land that the University currently resides on. He explained how his stories about culture and heritage may not apply to his entire tribe, but rather his own experiences and traditions growing up in northern Michigan as an Anishinaabe/Odawa.

“I always say you could have 10 Natives up here, and they can give you 10 different perspectives and answers, and they’re all correct,” Hemenway said. “So, I’m not speaking on behalf of all Odawa, I’m not speaking on behalf of all Anishinaabek, I’m speaking on behalf of myself and everything I’ve learned on my time here.”

Hemenway spoke about repatriation, the idea of returning someone or something back to their home land, and how it connects with the land where Natives buried their ancestors. As a historian, Hemenway explained how hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed from their native lands.

“When things were very tumultuous, and we were forced with removal, that connection with their heritage, their history and their culture is severed,” Hemenway said. “One of the main things that kept us in our homelands was our ancestors.”

The idea of home is deeply rooted in Native culture, Hemenway explained. Hemenway shared his experience of reading letters Native leaders wrote to the federal government 200 years ago explaining the necessity of staying on the land of their ancestors.

“Reading these letters from 200 years ago has been rewarding, impactful and very deep,” Hemenway said. “When you’re being forced with this choice of ‘Do I leave my land? What do I do to stay home?’ I’m thinking of my grandfather, my grandmother, my dad, my mother, and you have to be there with them. So that idea and feeling of home goes beyond a house. It goes beyond this area I visit occasionally. It’s literally my DNA, my roots. My ancestors are in this land, and that’s why I consider this my anchor.”

Hemenway also shared his own family’s meaningful traditions for a yearly ceremony during the fall called the Ghost Suppers.  Ever since he was a child, Hemenway’s family has participated in the ceremony, which included many home-cooked dishes, Hemenway said. Eating at least one bite of every single dish is part of the ceremony because it signifies that someone on “the other side” — an ancestor who has passed away — is also eating. 

“We open the house to not just our immediate family, but to anybody. If you hear about the supper you’re invited,” Hemenway said. “That’s how it works, it’s the hospitality … It’s these activities that show this continuity of connection and culture and beliefs in a home. And it would be very, very difficult to have this connection if I was in (somewhere like) Kansas. You could do it, but it doesn't have the impact, doesn’t have the power that it does when you’re going to the grave of your grandmother, and putting a reef on, and then the next day, feeding her.”

LSA sophomore Lindsey Smith attended the event after hearing about it from sociology professor Arland Thornton, who coordinated the event. Smith also works in a museum studies class that focuses on repatriations, and was interested to hear more about Hemenway’s work.

“(Hemenway) told us a lot about culture, and as a fellow Anishinaabek person, it was just good to hear that stated in a crowd, and learning about his experiences as an Anishinaabek,” Smith said. “I’m a member of the Sue St. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, which is a very close tribe to the Odawa, and so it was interesting to hear about history close to my own, in both a personal light and then in a more formal, not quite academic, but in an official light presented to the public. It was just engaging to embrace in culture.”

While much of the cultural history of Native Americans is rich and powerful, Hemenway said it’s important to also recognize the brutal treatment many Natives suffered.

“I could tell you all these real flowery, romantic stories, but that’s old hack,” Hemenway said. “I have to tell all these tough stories because they’re not being told — about removal, about forced assimilation, about losing land, about losing resources, about losing your identity and then reclaiming them — because that’s part of the story.”

Hemenway also described the attitudes of the federal government in the 1800s, a time period when Native Americans were brutally treated. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, for example, was the first legal justification of the isolation and removal of Native Americans from their indigenous lands.

“They did not see us as human. They saw us as savage,” Hemenway said. “And this was the language that was used over a century in official documents. So, as a professional historian, I had to train myself on how to read this stuff because I’d get so angry.”

Another subject Hemenway discussed was his work with repatriation of human remains and sacred objects. Hemenway said he was glad the University is sending more than half of its remains back to their homeland. It’s a major development in the level of respect and appreciation long overdue for the tribe, Hemenway said.

“We consider this dangerous work,” Hemenway said. “There’s a lot of energy around this, not just the remains but the items too, and that’s something we try to relate to the scientific community, museum officials. This goes beyond simple law, this gets into our religion, our culture, our spirituality.”

Michael McIntyre, a database and web developer for ISR who organized the event, weighed in on the turnout and significance of Hemenway’s presentation.

“I was very pleased with the turnout. It was a mix of U-M staff and faculty, and a number of administrative people,” McIntyre said. “There was a rich group of people around the Ann Arbor community as well. I was very pleased with what Eric shared with us. I thought he did a masterful job of weaving together personal story, Odawa history and response to the long period of invasion and all of the aftermath of that, and leading up to the personal context with them of why his work with repatriation was so resonant with him.”

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the number of people in attendance.