Michigan’s Mackinac Island gained worldwide fame in 1981 with the release of the movie Somewhere in Time (in which a time-traveling Christopher Reeve falls in love with Jane Seymour at the Grand Hotel). But the island has been a popular tourist destination for much longer. Visitors flock here to enjoy an idyllic community where motorized vehicles are prohibited, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop down scenic lanes, and guests are pampered in the Grand Hotel that overlooks Lake Michigan (though time traveling, alas, is not one of its amenities).
But on a recent trip to Mackinac Island, I discovered that this beloved island also has a spiritual side—-one with a history that’s far older than its most recent incarnation as a tourist destination.
I learned about this little-known aspect of Mackinac Island’s history on the new Native American Cultural History Trail, which is a joint project done by the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians and the staff of Mackinac State Historic Parks.
Recently installed on the eight-mile road that runs along the perimeter of the island, the trail includes six interpretive stations that detail the rich history and complex symbolic meanings of the island.
Mackinac Island, which lies between Upper and Lower Michigan, holds significant meaning for the Anishnaabek (who include the Odawa/Ottawa, Ojibway/Chippewa, and Potawatomi). The island’s original name, Michilimackinac, translates as “Great Turtle” in the Anishnaabek language—and as you cross on the ferry, you can see that the island does indeed resemble a turtle rising out of the deep blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
On a bike ride around the island—an absolutely delightful route, bordered on one side by crystalline water and the other by wooded hills—Bob and I stopped every few miles to read the interpretive signs.
We learned that for many centuries, this island was the center of the Anishnaabek world. Ceremonies were held on the island to celebrate the changing seasons and to pay respect to the spirits who resided here. These powerful beings controlled the lakes, and appropriate actions needed to be taken to ensure that the fishing remained plentiful and that travelers could cross the waters safely.The Anishnaabek also used Mackinac Island, along with other islands in the Straits of Mackinac, to bury their dead (which meant that their ancestors lived here as well as spirits). After a burial, the dead were honored with ceremonies that were described as “feasts of the dead” by the French explorers and Jesuit priests who came to the region in the seventeenth century.
This practice continues to this day among Native communities in northern Michigan in a tradition known as “Ghost Suppers.” The description of these suppers reminded me of the Mexican traditions surrounding Day of the Dead, when people go to cemeteries to honor their loved ones, bringing foods that they enjoyed in life.
In the past decades, some of these bodies have been repatriated to tribal councils, but many still remain on the island.
The Native American Cultural History Trail also describes the tumultuous years following the coming of Europeans to the area. The French and British quickly realized the strategic importance of Mackinac Island, which became both a center for the fur trade and a highly prized military outpost.
During the War of 1812, the island saw combat when Native warriors fought U.S. troops alongside their British allies. The British captured the island, but returned it to American control at the end of the war.
The Anishnaabek then faced another challenge: the Indian Removal Act, which was signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. The act allowed the U.S. government to seize Native lands and force their inhabitants to resettle west of the Mississippi River. The Anishnaabek disputed the act and won the right to stay in Michigan thanks to the 1855 Treaty of Detroit.
While the Anishnaabek no longer live on Mackinac Island, today they have tribal lands just north of the island near St. Ignace and in Mackinaw City to the south.
The Native American Cultural History Trail is a much-needed addition to Mackinac Island, a reminder to the thousands of tourists who come here each year that this place has been sacred for many centuries. Standing on the shore, looking out across the water, I had a sense for the deeper meanings of this place. It still feels like a place hallowed by spirits and ancestors.
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