Anishinaabek share culture, stories, and history across the region for Native American Heritage Month

Nov. 25—TRAVERSE CITY — After the leaves have turned, and the days get shorter, Anishinaabek across the state of Michigan welcome in dagwaagin, or fall, the season of harvesting, gathering, and hunting.

It also is the time to remember those who have passed on, said Linda Woods, K'tchi Wikweedong Anishinaabe, an elder of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

"This time of the year holds special significance for Odawa in the region," Woods said.

The preparation of slowing down for the long nights of biiboon (winter) follows after days, sometimes weeks, of feasts to honor, recognize and celebrate the rich cultural heritage, traditions, and histories passed from those who came before us, Woods explained.

In Northern Michigan Anishinaabek communities, these feasts, also known as ghost suppers, are prepared in a family's home during the first weeks of November. Historically, these ceremonies took place in the springtime, but because of Christian influence in the region, ghost suppers now fall around the same time as All Soul's Day.

The days that surround the ceremonies start with a sacred fire that will remain lit and tended to by a firekeeper until the ending of the feast.

Food for the feast is prepared in the early morning, and ranges from traditional Anishinaabek food, such as wild rice, venison and corn soup, to more modern foods that recently deceased family members enjoyed.

Tables are set with spots dedicated solely for the guests, with doors often left open to welcome in the spirits. Food and asemaa (tobacco) are offered to nourish visiting ancestors.

"We tell them we love you and haven't forgotten you," Woods said.

As a child, she recalled the closeness of her aunties, uncles, and grandparents, as they sat around a table and stripped sacred plants such as red willow, used to tie old and new traditions of Anishinaabek.

During that time of preparation, "we have that time with one another," Woods said. There, she would hear stories of her family while she watched her grandmother, Susan Yanot Miller, craft weaved black ash baskets, and porcupine quill boxes.

The black ash baskets, at one point, were the only reason Odawa, like Wood's grandmother, Susan Miller, and others could afford for their families to live here, said Tom Peters.

Peters also is an Anishinaabe elder of GTB, and presented alongside Woods at the Old Mission Library with the Old Mission Historical Society to discuss Anishinaabek tradition and knowledge with the community.

There is a lot of imagination about what "Indian people are," Peters said, "We call ourselves Anishinaabek."

The Anishinaabek include the Ojibwa, Odawa, Bodéwademi of the Great Lakes. Also known as the Three Fires Council, the eldest brother, the Ojibwe, are the keepers of the sacred traditions and medicines, Peters said. The Odawa, the middle brother, are the keepers of the trade, and the youngest brother, the Bodéwademi, are the keepers of the fire.

"Our culture and language originate from here," Peters said. "There is spiritual meaning in our language. It all linked and structured from the memories of these lands."

Peters said the worldview of Anishinaabek is better understood when the language is present because of the importance they tie in with the environment.

Anishinaabek believe "we are spiritual beings having a physical experience," Peters was taught these teachings by elders. He said Anishinaabek were given the seven grandfather teachings to follow in tradition by Creator to live mino bimaadiziwin — or the good life.

"It was a sacred gift ," Peters said, "we are here today and we have an obligation to the next generations."

For more than three decades, the symbolic gesture designated by the federal government observes Native American Heritage Month (NAHM) in November, as a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people.

Like Woods and Peters, many Anishinaabek from sovereign nations like GTB, and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians helped shine a light on the discussion of Anishinaabek histories, and knowledge with the community in public events across the region.

It is important to share this knowledge and perspective with the community, JoAnne Cook, an elder of GTB, said, "We are storytellers."

For Cook and other Anishinaabek across the Great Lakes, she said it means thinking of seven generations after, what needs to be shared about the beauty that encompasses being Anishinaabek.

Cook presented with the Benzie Historical Society to discuss Anishinaabek history in the perspective of an Anishinaabek kwe, or woman. She said in the creation story of the Anishinaabek, woman was created first, "but we, as humans, came last."

As told by generations of elders before her, Anishinaabek have been here since time immemorial. Cook said, "We have always been here."

The knowledge elders carry is pre-eminent in Anishinaabek culture. Cook said, "They're very important, because they carry their family."

Her own grandparents were pillars in her childhood, who Cook said surrounded her with important life skills as Anishinaabe; they also were her first look at the importance of elders and the knowledge they carry.

Traditions passed down are vital for the preservation of Anishinaabek culture. "Our culture is dying," said Misty Callaway, a citizen of GTB.

Both of Callaway's grandparents were artists and taught how to black ash basket weaving, beading, and working with porcupine quills. She said she carries on the art with her own children because she is proud of their Odawa heritage.

In support of her son, Dadrian Pitawanakwat, along with other community members, showcased beadwork, porcupine quill boxes, traditional practices of harvesting manoomin (wild rice) and sacred medicines like tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, and cedar.

Last year, the Record-Eagle featured Pitawanakwat with the Elk Rapids Indigenous Youth and Friends club and, for the first time since the Pandemic hit, the club hosted their first in-person event for the NAHM.

Callaway said she is proud to see her son and other young Native American kids to follow in the footsteps in honoring their ancestors and culture in such an impactful way.

Guest speaker Eric Hemenway, director of the Department of Repatriation, Archives, and Records for the LTBB, gave a brief history of the Odawa in the region, and Shocko Hall, a citizen of GTB, shared the hand drum and traditional singing.

Pitawanakwat said it is important to help break down barriers and connect the community with Anishinaabek perspectives because it is part of his duty to carry that on.

Through the group he has learned how to harvest traditional medicines and how to care for the environment, which allows him to experience his culture and community in ways that may not have been available to him otherwise. This offers access to his culture, for which he is grateful, and provides an important way to prepare future stewards of the traditions and knowledge.

Recently, Pitawanakwat went through a sacred ceremony to receive his name, a rightful passage in Anishinaabek traditions that he said helped ground him in his culture.

"I am Anishinaabek every day," said Pitawanakwat. " I am proud everyday of my Odawa identity."

Report for America corps member and Indigenous Affairs' reporter Sierra Clark's work is made possible by a partnership between the Record-Eagle and Report for America, a journalism service project founded by the nonprofit Ground Truth Project. Generous community support helps fund a local share of the Record-Eagle/RFA partnership. To support RFA reporters in Traverse City, go to