I was born in Bay City, Michigan, in a hospital located on a street named for a gold-hungry mass-murderer of the Taino People. I grew up in a house of skeleton keys with a backyard climbing tree and an overgrown alley as my first wilderness.
Before it was Bay City, it was Lower Saginaw.
Before it was Lower Saginaw, it was John Riley’s Reserve, in Michigan Territory.
Before it was Michigan Territory, it was a British held territory. Before that, part of New France.
But before that, it was Mishi-Anishinaabaki, “Greater Anishinaabe Land.”
On this Indigenous Peoples Day, I honor the many nations of First Peoples upon whose lands I have spent my life. In my 50-plus years, I have lived on the lands of the Ojibwa, Lakota, Mayan, and Crow Nations. These lands were acquired by the United States and Mexico through often disingenuously negotiated treaties, wars of expansion, massacres, germ warfare waged against non-combatants and outright theft.
My birthplace is Anishinaabe/Ojibwa land in what is now called Michigan (coming from the Anishinaabe michaagami, “big lake”). Much of the area was ceded to the United States by the Ojibwa in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw; although Lewis Cass’ methods of getting the signatories addicted to alcohol, then bribing them with barrels of whiskey to sign the document would most likely render the treaty void in a fair court. Additionally, the negotiations were mostly forced upon the Ojibwa as punishment for siding with the British in the War of 1812.
The area of what became my birthplace of Bay City was not part of this treaty. This land was held in reserve for an Ojibwa named John Riley, the son of Menawcumegoqua. However, within weeks of Michigan becoming a state in 1837, a new treaty transferred this land (and other reserves) to the United States. It doesn’t appear that Riley, the legal possessor of the land, was party to the negotiations, nor signed the treaty.
The incomparable wealth in natural resources and land, combined with the free labor of enslaved Africans, is what gave the United States its ability to become one of the richest and most powerful empires in history. As European Americans, we were mostly taught that it was natural that we had so much land, wealth and power, or that God willed it, or that good old American ingenuity and work-ethic created it. None of that is true. We have what we have and are what we are due to the theft, genocide and enslavement perpetrated by our forebears.
I believe that if we can face this truth, we can heal. We can make amends. We can move forward. Until then, we will be a nation carrying the grave burden and illness of our original sin. Today, Indigenous Peoples Day, is a great place to start.