It might have been here on The Twelve that somebody suggested it would be interesting to discover who owned my land before my land was mine. Some of that history is well documented in Michigan as part of the larger early 19th century moving in of settlers and the moving out of native tribes.
The Treaty of Chicago (1833) and the Treaty of Washington(1836) ceded West Michigan ownership to the United States government. The Ottawa, Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Potawatomi Nations signed the treaties, setting the stage for Albertus VanRaalte to lead hordes of Dutch Reformed settlers into this land beginning in 1846. Joining a variety of other adventurous souls we got busy, prospered, multiplied, and celebrated Providence while others trudged trails of tears.
The land has a longer memory than that however. The Native Nations have an oral history to explain the many mysterious mounds the settlers found streaming up what would become Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. The mounds dated back maybe 2000 years but neither settler nor native knew exactly who built them or why. Similar mounds dotted the continent far beyond the Midwest, reaching south to the Gulf of Mexico and north into Canada.
The multitude of mounds were evidence of a massive ancient civilization that left no written record of their history or organization. They left us mounds of sculptured earth containing relics and some residue of human remains. At first the mounds were a curiosity to be dismantled for artifacts but eventually they were in the way of farming and urban expansion, bulldozed or used for swamp fill.
Only a handful of the original mounds remain. The Norton Mounds near Grand Rapids is one of the few intact historical sites still in existence. It is a protected area nestled between Indian Mounds Road and I-196, across the river from Millennium Park. There’s no signage or historical plaques to explain their existence. No trails but a muddy two track used by fishermen to get to the nearby Interstate lake dredged out for road construction. Ironically, the lake is now part of the protected area.
When I walked around the lake before I became aware of its protected status, I passed by discarded bait containers and chunks of abandoned concrete slabs to experience the peculiar humps of earth rising from the forest floor.
Standing in the middle of a grouping of three mounds was exhilarating. I breathed in the reality of a 2000 year old mystery. Mounds of earth built painstakingly, one basket full of earth at a time, as a celebration of existence and the grief of loss. No visitor walks away without some perspective and I was glad for the gift.
The mound builders were not the first people to occupy this land, of course. There’s evidence that even earlier people or peoples worked the land and the river as far back as glaciers carved out the Great Lakes. Evidence of flourishing nations who lived, loved, and passed out of memory. It’s an interesting place, this land I now call my own.
Here’s a suggestion: If you ever have the opportunity to travel through the heart of West Michigan from Grand Rapids toward Holland, take Interstate 196. It’s really busy so be very careful but look to your right just shy of mile marker 72. You will have a bird’s eye view of that pointy little interstate lake that’s really a gravel pit surrounded by ancient history. This view is made possible because Native voices redirected road construction plans that otherwise would have destroyed the mounds. We all would have been diminished without the intervention of land dwellers with deeper roots than mine.
Even at 70mph we can be reminded that we really own nothing and Wisdom calls us to see beyond our limits into the extraordinary.