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Chapter 2: Michigan's first residents.

Before the white man came to Michigan the land was inhabited by people who became known as Indians. This name resulted from a gross miscalculation by the one who first made Europe aware of the New World. Columbus firmly believed that he had reached the Indies, which was the name the Europeans gave to the dimly known Far East. Hence Columbus called the native peoples in this land Indians. Like so many misnomers, this one has persisted. The Indians whom the French found in Michigan over a century after Columbus were descendants of peoples that had arrived here at an earlier time. Where they came from, when they arrived, and who they were have been and will continue to be subjects of controversy. Although all of these questions may never be answered in an entirely satisfactory manner, much of what passed for answers in the past has had to be discarded or greatly revised by recent findings. With regard to the first question, the most common assumption remains that the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere originally came from Asia by way of the Bering Straits, where at times in the past the two hemispheres have been joined by a land bridge. Even today the narrow waterway is not great enough to prevent Eskimos on either side from traveling back and forth in their comparatively primitive vessels.

The development of new, more accurate methods of determining the age of some kinds of archaeological discoveries, beginning with the radiocarbon method perfected in the 1940s, has resulted in important changes in the dating of known prehistoric Indian sites and has pushed farther back in time the period in which these peoples were first thought to have arrived in this hemisphere. More recent discoveries have suggested that even these revised estimates were too conservative as finds in California and Mexico and elsewhere raised the possibility that humankind had been in those areas as far back as 100,000 or even 250,000 years ago, rather than the 20,000- to 40,000-year range that previously had been assumed. (1)

In the case of Michigan, and much of the northern part of North America, however, the possibilities for discovering evidence of human existence are limited by the fact that approximately 18,000 years ago these areas were largely covered by the glaciers of the last great ice age which made the region uninhabitable. Furthermore, the immense weight of these glaciers, thousands of feet thick, ground out all surface evidence of prior life in these lands. In approximately 11,000 B.C., a warming trend initiated a northward retreat of the ice which led to a restoration of life to the uncovered surfaces. Animals moved in to feed from the vegetation that grew up again, and soon people, who lived by hunting these animals, also arrived.

Although conditions in the extreme southern part of Michigan might have supported human life as early as 13,000 years ago, the earliest evidence of such life thus far uncovered is the Gainey Site in the Flint area that archaeologists believe is perhaps 11,000 years old, or, in other words, that dates from about 9,000 B.C. (2) The archaeological evidence from this and other early sites is pitifully meager--a few broken stone tools, a spear point, an animal bone or two, the remains of a fire hearth--but, nevertheless, by working with geologists and botanists who can tell them of the changes in land forms, water levels, climate, and vegetation, archaeologists have been able to piece together a picture of the gradual movement into the area of peoples of different levels of cultural development, and how they adapted themselves to a changing environment.

The first inhabitants of Michigan in these postglacial years lived by hunting the big animals that were then found here, such as the mastodons, which would become extinct, and the caribou, now found only much farther north, where they migrated in search of the cold climate that no longer was found in Michigan as, by approximately 6,000 B.C., the glaciers had disappeared from the area south of Canada.

During the next four thousand years, as the climate became warmer and drier than it has been at any time in the past 20,000 years, other peoples moved into these thickly forested lands, hunting the animals that were now largely similar to those that a modern hunter would expect to find in Michigan. These peoples also increasingly took advantage of the abundant food supply available in the Great Lakes. Although their water levels were much lower than they have been in recent times, these lakes, which in the immediate postglacial era were more directly linked to the oceans and had thus harbored whales and walrus, now became predominately the home of varieties of small marine life.

The increasing variety of the human-made objects that are found at the sites dating from these years, in contrast with those from earlier periods, has led archaeologists to conclude that these objects are evidence of cultural progress. The most startling advance of these ancient Michigan inhabitants was the use made of the copper found in the Upper Peninsula. This metal was being mined at least as far back as 3,000 B.C., leaving shallow pits that are still discernible today. By alternately heating and chilling the chunks of ore that they dug out, these Old Copper Indians, as they have been termed, removed the surrounding rocks in order to reach the soft pure copper, which they then hammered into tools and weapons to replace or to supplement their stone implements. These Indians were apparently the first peoples anywhere in the Western Hemisphere to work with metals. They still lived by hunting and fishing, but they appear to have been the first in the area to have domesticated the dog--the only domestic animal of the prehistoric peoples of Michigan. They also developed and built dugouts or canoes to reach the islands where some of their mine pits were located. They buried their dead in cemeteries, indicating an increased degree of community identity and organization, and they traded with other peoples, as evidenced by the discovery of some of these early Michigan copper products at sites in New York, Illinois, and Kentucky. In the last two thousand years of the pre-Christian era, major cultural changes occurred in the area. At the same time land forms, the dimensions and depths of the lakes, and the flora and fauna assumed the general characteristics that are found today. The first burial mounds were built during this period, and their existence today is a visible reminder of these early Michigan residents, who were the contemporaries of or who preceded the far better-known civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean world or the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilizations. Over a thousand Indian mounds have been identified in Michigan, chiefly in the southern part of the Lower Peninsula. Although the great number of bodies that were buried in the largest of these mounds (which pioneers in the River Rouge area found and subsequently leveled in the nineteenth century) were probably the result of deaths caused by some disaster, it is generally presumed that burial in a mound was an honor accorded only to a select few. This fact, together with the placement of artifacts and other treasured possessions with the dead person's remains, suggests again a degree of tribal organization, a respect for those in authority, and a prescribed ceremonial life that would have less likely existed in earlier, more primitive cultures.

Another evidence of cultural progress in this period is the appearance of pottery, which marked a major advance over earlier, laboriously fashioned stone or wooden vessels. But an even more important step toward the development of a culture was taken around 100 B.C. when some of the peoples in Michigan began growing their own food.

Agriculture is one of several features of what archaeologists have called the Hopewell Indian culture, which emerged in the lower Midwest around 500 B.C. Within a few hundred years this culture, the most advanced to be found among any Indians in the region at any time prior to the historical era, had spread to sites along the rivers of southwestern Michigan. For the first time, some Michiganians ceased to be dependent on food they obtained by hunting, fishing, and gathering activities. They began to grow some of their own food, raising corn, squash, beans, and also probably some tobacco, which Indians of the region had begun smoking.

In addition to introducing agriculture to Michigan, the Hopewell Indians produced artistically decorated pottery, which also led to the production of small sculptured human and animal figures, elaborately carved pipe bowls, jewelry, and other objects. These were made from a variety of materials, including shells from the coastal regions, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, mica from the Middle Atlantic area, and lead from Missouri. To obtain this material, the Hopewell Indians obviously had developed extensive trade with other peoples, and some of their copper objects have been found at sites as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

The diversity of the Hopewell culture is further indicated by their use of musical instruments, their development of fabrics using finger-weaving techniques, and their construction of large earthen wall enclosures around groups of burial mounds. In addition, the so-called garden beds, found by pioneers in the nineteenth century in parts of southern and western Michigan, may date from the Hopewell period. Among the most curious of all North American antiquities, these garden beds, covering as much as 120 acres, consisted of low ridges of soil approximately eighteen inches high, arranged in a variety of nearly perfect geometrical patterns which resembled formal gardens. What function they were intended to serve remains a mystery. Except for a few reported in Indiana and Wisconsin, they have been found only in Michigan, but all of them were destroyed by modern farming operations. A few Indian mounds have survived, however, including a small one in Bronson Park, Kalamazoo, and a group of about fifteen mounds, known as the Norton Mounds, located along the Grand River southwest of Grand Rapids.

Sometime after A.D. 700 the Hopewell culture declined, and the remaining years before the onset of the historical period in the early seventeenth century saw a diversity of cultures in the area, some of which coexisted with the earlier Hopewell culture, while others existed outside the Hopewell culture. None of these cultures, however, reached the levels of Hopewell. Toward the end of the prehistoric years the number of these early residents of Michigan appears to have declined considerably for reasons that are not clear. One notable feature of their culture is the greatly reduced use they made of the copper that earlier peoples had been utilizing for several thousand years. Again, the reasons for this change are unclear. (3)

Suddenly in the early 1600s the innumerable and glaring gaps in the archaeological knowledge and evidence of Michigan's first peoples began to be filled in from the written records of European observers who entered these areas and reported what they found and saw. In all of Michigan, which did not then exist, of course, as a separate, politically defined area, these outsiders found relatively few Indians. There is little doubt that Michigan today contains far more Indians than it did at the start of the historical period. In the entire upper Great Lakes region the estimated Indian population in the early 1600s is believed to have numbered approximately 100,000. Compared to later population standards for this same area, this figure is small, but on a larger scale these Indians comprised a tenth of the total Indian population for all of North America north of Mexico when Europeans first began to have extensive contact with this continent.

The French were the first to explore the upper Great Lakes, and they would eventually identify nine tribes which would play a role in Michigan's development. Although the French had difficulty in distinguishing among tribes and the bands or clans into which the tribes were divided, the names that now identify these different groups are names that were actually used at the time and are not terms arbitrarily assigned by later investigators, as is the case with such prehistoric names as the Old Copper and Hopewell Indians.

The nine upper Great Lakes tribes fall into three linguistic groupings, while at least three levels of cultural development are also apparent. On the east, living in the Georgian Bay area, were the Huron Indians and the closely related Tionontati or Tobacco Huron. The exact relationship between these two groups is uncertain; as a result of wars, however, the two groups were forced to merge, and the term "Wyandot" became the more common name for the merged group. These Indians were the only representatives of the Iroquoian linguistic group in this region. Other tribes that spoke this language, including the several tribes known collectively as the Iroquois, were located southeast of the Hurons. The Hurons and Tobacco Hurons are believed to have been the most numerous of the upper Great Lakes tribes, with a population estimated between 45,000 and 60,000. Culturally, they were also the most advanced according to European standards, since they were relatively sedentary people, living in large villages with a high degree of community and tribal organization. This resulted from the fact that they were the most agriculturally oriented of all these Indians, growing a substantial amount of their food. Gardening, rather than farming, might be more descriptive of the Huron agriculture, which was primarily the job of the women; in view of the almost total lack of farm equipment and the complete absence of work animals, however, the size of the fields that were cultivated was surprisingly large. The Hurons did not need to move about a great deal searching for food. The hunting they did was not so much for meat as it was for the skins and hides of the animals, which they used as items of clothing or to cover their dwellings. The Hurons continued, however, to take advantage of the area's abundant supply of fish, which constituted a major part of their diet.

To the north of the Hurons and living among the islands and on the shores of northern Lake Huron was the Ottawa tribe, a small group of approximately 3,000 people. They were members of the Algonquian linguistic group, which geographically is the most widely distributed Indian language group in North America and is represented among seven of the nine upper Great Lakes tribes. Despite their language differences with the Hurons and the fact that they were still much more dependent on hunting and fishing for food than they were on farming, the Ottawas were on good terms with the Hurons and their histories would be closely linked for nearly two centuries.

To the north of the Ottawa was the second most numerous of these tribes, the Chippewa, numbering approximately 30,000 but scattered over a vast area around Lake Superior and far to the north in Canada. Their name is a phonetic corruption of Ojibwa, the term by which these Indians were known to their neighbors. Tribal tradition holds that the Chippewa, together with the Ottawa and Potawatomi, had lived near the Gulf of St. Lawrence until sometime in the sixteenth century when they moved to the Great Lakes. The three groups went separate ways but maintained a loose association known as "the three fires." (4) The Chippewas were Algonquian in their language, but culturally they were different from all the other tribes in that they were nearly as dependent on hunting, fishing, and gathering activities as were the Indians of the pre-agricultural era. One Chippewa group lived in what became the Sault Ste. Marie area and was highly skilled in fishing the fast-moving waters of the St. Mary's River. Other groups were found at two or three other points in the Upper Peninsula and at other locations around Lake Superior. Because these nomadic Indians were so widely dispersed they may not have considered themselves one tribe until later in the historical period when outside pressures compelled them to draw together.

Westward across the Upper Peninsula, the Menominee Indians, numbering approximately 3,000, lived in the valley of the river which bears their name and which forms part of the Michigan-Wisconsin boundary. An Algonquian-speaking tribe, the Menominee, like the Ottawa and the remaining five tribes, were in the middle of the scale relative to how they obtained their food, not growing as much as the Hurons but not as dependent on hunting and fishing as the Chippewa. One distinguishing feature of the Menominee, however, was the extent to which they harvested the wild rice that grew abundantly in their area and that was more important in their diet than in that of any other tribe in the region.

South of the Menominee in central Wisconsin were the Fox and the Sac or Sauk Indians, each with populations of approximately 3,000. They were linguistically related to the Menominee, but culturally the latter were much closer to their neighbors in the Green Bay area--the Winnebago Indians--who may have numbered close to 4,000, even though this tribe was the sole representative this far east of the Siouan linguistic stock that was most commonly associated with tribes much farther west. The Sac and the Fox sometimes hunted in the open prairie country to the south, and the different techniques used in hunting the buffalo that were found on those prairies brought these two tribes closer culturally to the Miami, an Algonquian tribe of approximately 4,500 people that lived in southern Wisconsin at the start of the historical period. The prairie hunting forays of the Miami were conducted by an entire village, in contrast to the hunts of the northern tribes in which smaller, family-size groups scoured regional forests.

The ninth of the tribes in the upper Great Lakes at the beginning of the historical period was the Potawatomi, with a population of approximately 4,000. There is evidence that early in the seventeenth century they were living in the western part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. This peninsula seems to have become largely deserted, however, because of the attacks first of the Neutrals, a tribe living along the shores of Lake Ontario, and then of the fierce Iroquois tribes from New York, which caused the Indians living in southern Michigan to flee the area. The Potawatomi were dispersed to the northern shores of Lake Michigan. A few were reported by the French to be living among the Chippewa at Sault Ste. Marie in the early 1640s, but by midcentury more were found in the Green Bay area. (5) Late in the seventeenth century, population pressures in Wisconsin helped to bring about an eastward movement of both the Potawatomi and Miami tribes, who now began to make their homes in parts of northern Indiana, southern Michigan, and northern Ohio.

Overall, the Indians whom the French found in the upper Great Lakes region do not seem to have been as warlike as were some of the tribes in other areas, and thus, with some notable exceptions, Michigan's history is largely free of accounts of violent confrontations between Indians and whites such as are commonly associated with the relationship of these races in some other parts of the country. In other ways these Michigan Indians do not fit the stereotyped images that have been perpetuated by many writers and filmmakers; images that generally, if they have any factual basis, are more likely to relate to the Plains Indians of the West. The Indians of the forested Great Lakes area had few if any horses at the start of the historical period. They did not normally live in tepees, but instead built dome-shaped dwellings with a framework of saplings lashed together and covered with bark and skins. Nor did the members of these several tribes wear the elaborate feathered headdress of the Plains Indians, although in recent times some Indian residents of Michigan have adopted this costume in order to satisfy tourists.

That so many tourists expect Indians to conform to their images of them is only one evidence of the general lack of understanding of the Indians. This is no new phenomenon, however, for the French and other Europeans who first encountered these natives were startled and perplexed by the glaring differences between the western European and Indian cultures. Some of the more open-minded outsiders commented favorably on some aspects of the Indian lifestyle, such as their hospitality toward strangers, their courage and stamina, and the love shown by the parents toward their children. But for the most part the Indian culture was looked upon as decidedly inferior to that of the Europeans. The term which the French used to refer to these people, sauvages (although it does not have quite the same negative connotations as the English word "savages"), expressed what they felt was the uncivilized nature of the Indians, if not their innate inferiority to the French. Thus, the best and most enlightened policy that the French, and later the British and the Americans, could think of in dealing with the Indians was to try to "civilize" these people.

The Indians readily agreed that the Europeans' guns, iron kettles, blankets, and many other products were indeed superior to anything that the Indians had developed, and when the opportunity arose, the Indians quickly added these items to their culture. But they did not agree that their way of life itself was inferior, and they therefore resisted efforts that were aimed at Europeanizing or Americanizing them. As they became increasingly dependent on the Europeans for the material objects which had become so desirable, they found it more and more difficult to stand aloof from the Europeans' influence in other aspects of their culture. For two centuries, however, the Indians of the Michigan area were able to hold out effectively because during that time their services were regarded as useful and essential to the kind of development that outsiders were interested in pursuing.

Today, although some Indians in northern Michigan still try to preserve the ways of their ancestors, there is little to remind the uninitiated of that time until the 1600s, when the Indians were the only residents of the area. Perhaps the most obvious evidence lies in the many words the Indians contributed to the language of those who followed them into the area. Particularly notable are the number of Indian terms and names used as geographical place-names, including Michigan, Saginaw, Washtenaw, Kalamazoo, Mackinac, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Muskegon, Ottawa, Chippewa, Gogebic, Osceola, Topinabee, Pokagon, and many more. It must be noted, however, that in most instances these words of Indian origin have undergone considerable alteration and modification in the course of many different approaches to phonetic spellings of the spoken term. In some cases, such as Mackinac, the changes have been so great that it is impossible for Indian-language scholars to agree on the original meaning of the term since even the word or expression that the present spelling is supposed to represent cannot be exactly determined. (6) Thus even this remnant of Michigan's Indian heritage is in danger of being lost.
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Publication:Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:3877
Previous Article:Chapter 1: the physical environment.
Next Article:Chapter 3: the French explorers.
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