The points of two triangles meet at the center of the painting. The bottom one depicts an Assomption Sash, a colorful finger-woven sash often used in contemporary Native regalia. The top triangle shows stars in the sky—but not just any stars, and not just any sky. This was the sky as it looked in the early morning hours of October 15, 1900, the day the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians were forcibly removed from their land in northern Michigan and lost their rights as a sovereign nation.
The stars form the same constellations that tribal members might have looked up at, unaware that their lives would soon change forever, unaware that they would soon be driven from their homes. Later called the Burt Lake Burn-Out, the forced relocation facilitated the effective termination of the Burt Lake Band as a federally recognized people. But that fateful day was not the end.
“Sky in the Morning Hours of Binaakwiiwi-giizis 15, 1900” is currently up at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) as part of the exhibition Future Cache, a commissioned art show that requires the audience to acknowledge something irrefutable: that the Burt Lake Band, like many Native nations, lives on in the face of attempted erasure.
Future Cache reminds its audience that U-M is also inextricably connected to the Burt Lake Band because of land. Although the U-M Biological Station was established after the Burn-Out, the university now owns large tracts of the tribe’s ancestral homeland. In addition, much of the Burt Lake Band’s former reservation, also known as “Indian Reserved” land, was obtained in 1987 to protect it from logging in a joint effort with the Little Traverse Conservancy.
Andrea Carlson, who is from the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is the artist behind Future Cache. In conversation with the Burt Lake Band, the U-M Native community, and other university partners, she chose to use her platform to show that the band is not defined by their trauma and land-loss, but by their strength in the face of it. What happens next for the band remains to be seen, but at the very least, Carlson has given U-M and LSA the gift of Indigenous insight.
The Burt Lake Band is a state-recognized tribe in Michigan but has long been fighting to be reaffirmed as a federally recognized tribe. Without that acknowledgment, the band misses out on key funding, services, and opportunities. They are also effectively erased in the U.S. government’s eyes. Until the band is federally reaffirmed, they will not have a seat at the table with other Michigan tribes that have parallel histories. What is especially pernicious with regard to the Burt Lake case is that their bid to be recognized in 1935, through the Indian Reorganization Act, was undoubtedly tabled because they no longer owned land.
Matthew Fletcher, a citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, is an LSA professor of American culture and the Harry Burns Hutchins Collegiate Professor of Law. He says that federal recognition means everything to tribes; without it, they are not seen as self-governing sovereign nations.
“[The Burt Lake Band’s] treaty was never abrogated,” says Fletcher. “They should have been federally acknowledged this whole time, but through the ravages of colonialism, they are not.” He explains that often a tribe must petition to meet exceedingly strict requirements regardless of their financial or realistic ability to do so. “It requires a lot of resources, a lot of backing, a lot of expert witnesses, and Burt Lake has really struggled on that part. They need lawyers, they need resources, and they probably need lobbyists too. But [the Burt Lake Band] are absolutely entitled to federal recognition.”
Fletcher is particularly moved by the work that Carlson has done to bring the tribe’s story to a wider audience. Fletcher’s wife, Wenona T. Singel, is an associate professor of law and director of the Indigenous Law & Policy Center at Michigan State. She is a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians but also descends from the Burt Lake Band. “We went to see [the exhibit] together,” recalls Fletcher. “It was emotionally impactful on both of us.”
Known for work that positions tribal rights at the forefront, Carlson was originally approached about the commission by Jennifer Friess, the associate curator of photography at UMMA. From that point forward, Carlson did everything she could to appropriately interact with the Burt Lake Band and attempt to represent their history and contemporary existence in a way that was meaningful. But Carlson also knew that advocacy for the tribe at U-M had already been in motion, partially led by LSA alum John Petoskey (A.B. ’16, J.D. and M.S. ’20).
In 2017, with support from Joseph P. Gone of the Gros Ventre Tribe of Montana, the former director of Native American studies at U-M, Petoskey wrote a letter to university administrators requesting that there be full acknowledgment of the Burt Lake Band’s history in the form of curriculum development. Petoskey requested that U-M work toward building better relationships with Michigan tribes, particularly the descendants of the Burt Lake Band. He also inquired into the specifics of the university’s ownership and acquisition of land at the Biological Station.
Petoskey, a citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, is currently an associate attorney for Earthjustice, a national environmental justice advocacy organization. He was aware of Carlson’s work when she reached out to him. Petoskey had seen Carlson’s installation You are on Potawatomi Land in Chicago and knew that the Burt Lake exhibition would make an important political statement.
“Art can speak in ways that the law and policy cannot,” says Petoskey. “I think creative work is always a key piece to advancing tribal causes.” Petoskey says that art often builds on, and can even lead, some of the most important legal conversations within Indian Country. “[Andrea Carlson] wanted to talk to people who had already done work in the area because she was invited to provide the exhibit. She felt like she needed to get information from the advocates on the ground.”
Alphonse Pitawanakwat, who is from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation, is an Ojibwe language instructor in the Department of American Culture at LSA and a highly respected member of the U-M Native community. During the Future Cache opening, he gave opening remarks and a land acknowledgment to an audience that included Burt Lake Band tribal members. He spoke in Anishinaabemowin, his first language.
Pitawanakwat says that Carlson’s work is important in bringing what happened to light. He also remembers communicating with Petoskey when the then-first-year law student wrote the original letter to administrators in 2017. “I really didn’t think it would take a foothold,” says Pitawanakwat. “But anything that needs to come out, should come out now. We can’t go by other people’s feelings. We have to go by facts.” Pitawanakwat says that there may be people on campus who do not like to hear what happened, but he believes that Anishinaabe history, like that of the Burt Lake Band, should be required learning for all U-M students in their first year.
The Long Walk and the Trail of Tears are often referenced as egregious examples of forced Native relocation, but many people are not aware of what happened in Michigan in 1900.
On October 15, 1900, the Burt Lake Band lost their reservation land base as well as a government-to-government relationship with the United States. The band’s land was illegally seized by a local militia that burned down their homes. Tribal members—mostly women, children, and elders, since the band’s men had left for the day—were forced to sit atop a few of their belongings in front of their houses and watch as a land speculator, with support from a sheriff, his deputies, and locals, doused tribal homes in kerosene and burned the community to the ground, sparing nothing but the church.
It was pouring rain, leading to some members getting pneumonia and a beloved elder passing away. The Burt Lake Band was then forced to march out of their treaty-protected reservation and find refuge wherever they could. To remain close to their homeland, the core of the community later reconstituted on nearby Indian Trail (now Indian Road), where relatives resided, and the tribe remains today.
Bruce Hamlin, the tribal chairman of the Burt Lake Band, says that attending the opening night of Future Cache was “surreal,” and he was awed by Carlson’s creation. “It was such an impressive piece of work. I was a bit blown away at first just to hear about it.” Hamlin is hopeful for more collaboration with the university and other partners in the future but is also grateful for what Future Cache has done for the tribe. “The Burt Lake Band’s story has never received this kind of exposure,” he says.
The exhibition also positions the declaration “You are on Anishinaabe land” on central campus, a reminder that Ann Arbor is Anishinaabe ancestral territory with tens of thousands of years of Native history compared to the 215 years since the Treaty of Detroit was signed and Ann Arbor was ceded to the U.S. government for 1.2 cents per acre, the equivalent of about 26 cents per acre today. Anishinaabe signatories were also promised annuities to be paid in perpetuity, but that was not followed through on. The prominent words are unmissable from all angles within the UMMA gallery space and are also translated into Anishinaabemowin.
Andrea Wilkerson, who is from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and received her A.B. in international studies from LSA in 2012, is a program manager for the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA). In her position, she works directly with the Native American Student Association (NASA) as their liaison and advisor. Wilkerson helped bring the Burt Lake Band to campus and facilitated talks with university partners to support Carlson’s conversations with the U-M community preceding the exhibition’s opening.
“It was apparent right from the start that Andrea Carlson was being really intentional,” says Wilkerson. “It was meant to be ongoing, longer-term engagement. When Andrea came to town in October, a small group of students, alums, and community [members] were able to meet with her in the gallery and have subsequently had opportunities to meet with Burt Lake tribal council and members.”
NASA has worked with the Burt Lake Band in other capacities, too. Wilkerson says that in addition to hosting the band for a #LandBack and sustainability panel in 2021, NASA visited the tribe’s healing garden, a recent collaboration between the Burt Lake Band and landscape designer Eva Roos, who holds degrees from the U-M School of Environment and Sustainability and Stamps School of Art and Design.
For Wilkerson, Future Cache is an important part of educating people affiliated with U-M and Ann Arbor. “I think it’s exciting that there is this ongoing opportunity for programming and community engagement. To see the big words You are on Anishinaabe land at UMMA, right off State Street, right across from the student union, is really powerful.”
Although Carlson has worked with U-M museums, she is also careful to point out that relationships between museums and Native people are not always so successful. With regard to Future Cache, she is happy that things have gone right and attributes the success to those involved, particularly Friess and UMMA for creating space for the Burt Lake Band.
Friess met Carlson while working on Watershed, a previous exhibition, when the vertical gallery came up for rotation. “There was this kismet of people talking about Andrea and what we could do that was visually impactful,” says Friess. “It came together when we brought her on site to see the space, and we just sort of talked through what she wanted to feature in the show, which was the story of the Burt Lake Band.”
Andrea Blaser, collections manager at the U-M Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA), explains that Future Cache is also unique in that, as a commissioned art exhibition, it included two items from their collections: a wooden spoon and a yoke from the Burt Lake Band. “I brought my curators on board with the loan. I explained to them where [the items] were going and that the artist was relating to them in a different way. And they were all on board once they had an understanding.” Blaser also says that UMMAA is actively moving toward collaboration with tribes and communities that the fields of anthropology and archaeology have historically harmed.
Ultimately Carlson’s choices and navigation of museum partnerships were meant to embolden a particular people. “This story belongs to Burt Lake,” she says. “That’s how I approached it. Not only am I a guest, but they didn’t ask for me. So there was a lot of checking in for consent.” Carlson offers advice for artists who might have the opportunity to work with museums and other institutions: “I would say to other artists that would pursue work like this, the truth-finding type of artwork or commission: don’t rush. The ideas were unfolding as I gained more familiarity with the story and people. I listened to band members and what they were prioritizing.”
At the exhibition’s core is the Burt Lake Band’s recognition, history, and survivance. The band is moving forward in ways to best serve their tribal citizens and are currently putting final touches on their tribal office and healing garden. One of Carlson’s paintings in the show says “Oct. 15. 1900 IS NOT THE END.”—a statement to carry forward to our current time. The discussions happening at the university now will inevitably continue.
“This wasn’t to take the place of any commitments that the school has to make when it comes to the Burt Lake people,” says Carlson. “That has to be taken on by leadership at the university, not by a guest artist.”
Petoskey believes that federal recognition is necessary for true healing and reconciliation on a national level. “I think it is the just thing to do, because the band itself has this horrible history, where they had their homelands, and histories, and stories, ripped out from under them.” An Anishinaabe leader and advocate, Petoskey references the idea of Indigenous kinship. “At the most basic level, it’s just a recognition of that story—that it mattered, that the people at Burt Lake continue to matter and exist. They are part of the broader fabric of what it means to be Indigenous, and what it means to be Anishinaabe.”
Future Cache will be up in UMMA’s vertical gallery space until June 1, 2024, telling that story. Beautiful art will continue to exist in UMMA’s most trafficked area, and the Anishinaabe language will continue to whisper from the walls. At the same time, Hamlin says, the Burt Lake Band will continue to work toward their dream of attaining a form of fundamental justice: federal reaffirmation.
Kashona Notah-Stevens is Iñupiaq, a member of the Native Village of Kotzebue, and a NANA Regional Corporation tribal shareholder. He was additionally raised since birth within a Diné family through his adoptive father, a proud member of the Navajo Nation. He holds professional affiliations with the Native American Journalists Association, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.
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