Driving through St. Ignace, we spotted something that reminded us of home, or what used to be around when we were kids: a classic tourist trap. Bedecked in neon, this low-slung building sat next to Lake Huron and had a giant teepee out front and signs for Minnetonka moccasins. “Indian Village,” it said.
Surprisingly, the historic church across the street had a wigwam in its yard. “Museum of Ojibwa Culture.” A combination we couldn’t ignore.
Finding a parking place landed us squarely at another North Country Trail trailhead, making this our third large trail town along the NCT in Michigan. St. Ignace sprawls along the shoreline of Lake Huron facing Mackinac Island. The trail – coming off the Mackinac Bridge – follows the Lake Huron Boardwalk right up to these two cultural icons before crossing the road to continue northwest towards Newberry.
On the grounds of the Museum of Ojibwa Culture, we found a memorial to Father Jacques Marquette. We were familiar with the name but not the history. Coming from an upper class French family, he joined the Jesuits to become a missionary in the New World.
In 1668, Marquette was assigned a Ojibwa mission. In 1671, his posting was right here at the Straits of Mackinac. Of necessity, he became an excellent chronicler and cartographer, assisting Louis Joliet of the mapping of the Mississippi River so France could lay claim to it.
Marquette was laid to rest in this churchyard in 1677, a fact confirmed by 1877. A memorial has existed since.
Inside the 1837 mission church – which was moved to this spot of honor in 1954 by the Knights of Columbus – the story of the Ojibwa people of this region and their roots unfolds. The Ojibwa are one of many tribes that lived throughout this densely forested region, collectively known as Anishinaabe (“the people”).
Interpretive information accompanies artifacts uncovered in St. Ignace. A bark-covered wigwam provides a space to watch a movie about the Ojibwa family unit and how every member contributed to its success.
Details on the French mission to the Ojibwa – along with items found on site, like a 300 year old wine bottle – are contrasted with the European settlers ultimate treatment of the native culture. While not as bloody as what occurred in the Southeast, it was equally as repellent. The taking of land through the introduction of the alien-to-North-America concept of land ownership. The taking of children from their parents to anglicize them in boarding schools. The origins of our country are nothing to be proud of, of displacing rich cultures that already existed on these shores.
The front of the museum is a gift shop showcasing arts and crafts by Ojibway from around the region. Outside, a Clan Park provides more insight into Ojibway culture, including clan totems.
Covered in birch bark, a large wigwam is used during clan gatherings. An artfully decorated tipi stands as another example of portable housing. Like most Native Americans, the Ojibwa moved with the seasons, so home came along.
Across the street, Indian Village also had a tipi, but it was to catch the eye of those driving by, just a big sculpture, with the footprints of others long gone, nearby. On the rustic porch were cutouts where tourists posed for pictures.
When we stepped inside, we were expecting the t-shirts and made in China tacky tourist stuff. What astounded us, though, was the birch bark. It was almost as if the building was meant to be a giant wigwam. And it was.
Also the owner of Castle Rock, another draw for tourists, photographer C.C. Eby built several wigwams and a wooden fort in 1928. He hired Ojibwa families to live in the village during the summer tourist months and carry on their traditional ways, as well as creating crafts for sale.
Eby also created postcards and wrote a guide to the region around the Mackinac Straits. He spent his winters in Florida, distributing the guide along the route as he traveled. He brought back seashells to add to the Michigan souvenir stand that was the money-making part of Indian Village. Eventually it outgrew its space and had to be moved to where it is today.
Eby was a collector and admirer of Native American culture, as shown through the artifacts tucked away in a museum in one distant corner of the store.
The museum’s dioramas are definitely from the past. It reminded us of places we’d visited as kids. From the items on display, it was obvious that Ojibwa culture was used as a sales tool, still a common practice fifty years ago.
Today, that’s downplayed. The store is still quirky, but only the birch bark overhead and the “original Indian Village rugs,” handwoven mats tucked under the checkout area, give a clue to the origins of this building unless you find your way to the back corner.
The North Country Trail runs right behind this building, too. And if you follow it south along the Lake Huron Boardwalk, it comes to Chief Wawatam Park, overlooking Mackinac Island.
Chief Wawatam was the name of the railroad ferry that brought train cars across the Mackinac Straits to continue their journey, a feat that boggles the mind. In turn, it was named for the Ojibway chief who, in 1763, rescued trader Alexander Henry from the Ojibway uprising in Michilimackinac and adopted him as a brother. Henry’s detailed and thoughtful account of his time among the Ojibway was the first time Europeans gained insight into this Great Lakes culture.
One more immersion into Native American history awaited, inside the Fort de Buade Museum. This museum downtown is one of those odd places that doesn’t look like much from the outside but is much larger in size and depth of detail than you’d ever imagine.
Inside, among hundreds of artifacts that included the mysterious “Newberry Tablet,” an unsolved Rosetta Stone of the Upper Peninsula, we discovered many Paleoindian items on display, as well as beadwork and doll-making from the period around when European missionaries first arrived among the Huron and Ojibwa.
Near the museum’s exit lay the biggest surprise of all. Reading the book “Jacksonland” last year, which speaks to the Indian Removal policies of President Andrew Jackson, I’d learned that when Native American dignitaries visited Washington D.C. – before the atrocities against their peoples began – they were asked to sit for formal portraits.
In this gallery inside this understated museum in St. Ignace, a collection of these portraits are on display. They are not the originals, of course, but lithographs. Commissioned by Thomas McKenney and painted by Charles Bird King between the 1820s and 1840s, they were sold for financial gain and thus are considered controversial.
However, they form the most complete visual record of who these leaders were. We recognized some, as they are images that appear in history books: Osceola, Sequoyah, Major Ridge, and more.
Seeing these lithographs was very moving, knowing that these leaders were trying to find the best way forward for their people in a world that was trying to actively destroy their ways of life.
St. Ignace surprised us with its depth of Native American history honoring the Anishinaabe. While the casual visitor focused on that ferryboat to Mackinac Island may never think to stop and explore, we’re glad we looked beneath the surface.