EAST LANSING, Mich. – About 200 American Indians, local community members and students gathered in East Lansing to participate in festivities marking the 35th annual Michigan Indian Day Sept. 25.
But outside the impressively-decorated ballrooms of the Michigan State University student union building, where several Indian Day presentations were taking place, the day was met with a mixed response and some confusion throughout the state.
At least one-third of Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes gave a paid holiday to its non-casino employees so they could honor the day, but few organized gatherings were going on within tribal communities.
“I’m not familiar with this event or anything that goes with it,” said Glenn Zaring, director of the office of public affairs for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee. The tribe, he said, was instead focused on its annual Reaffirmation Day, which was to take place at the beginning of the week.
The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi also had nothing on its schedule.
Kathy Mackety, communications officer of the Fulton-based Indian community, said the Nottawaseppi Tribal Council was vaguely aware of the day but didn’t plan to formally celebrate it. She said to check back next year.
Michigan Indian Day, officially enacted in 1974 by the state’s lawmakers, goes largely unnoticed by state officials, and the day is not considered an official state holiday.
Megan Brown, a spokesperson for Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, wasn’t familiar with the day and indicated that the state was not previously aware of events taking place just 10 miles away at MSU.
The governor’s office did not issue an official statement about the day.
Even a rare news report from past coverage of the day erroneously claimed Michigan Indian Day started in 1984.
However, Dr. Suzanne Cross, an associate professor at MSU who helped organize the event in East Lansing, won’t be deterred and was disappointed to hear Michigan Indian Day has not caught on statewide.
“I sent out fliers to each of the Michigan tribes. I’m surprised that some tribes said they didn’t hear about it.”
From her perspective, awareness of the day is growing.
Only about 40 people attended an event for Michigan Indian Day eight years ago on the MSU campus where she teaches social work. Now Cross, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in Mt. Pleasant, leads a committee that plans for five times the capacity of their first effort.
Of the 10 academic seminars, which included sessions on language identity and Indian health disparities, Cross said the boarding school symposium was most important to her because her mother was sent away to an Indian boarding school.
Many indigenous people, like Cross, continue to deal with the consequences BIA boarding schools had on their families. The presentation examined these life-altering impacts and the harsh realities boarding schools had on Indian’s identities.
Social work professionals who attended the seminars were eligible to receive credit in their field, and the day’s events culminated with a traditional Jingle Dress dance.
Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, and the Society of American Indians are believed to have started the first country-wide push for a national Indian day in the mid-1910s. Other reports suggest a group of boy scouts from New York started the first American Indian Day celebrations just prior to the society’s efforts.
Besides Michigan, several other states including Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Oklahoma have designated a state Indian day.