Kayaking the Archipelago of the Gods

Strang’s island kingdom presented the largest voting block in the region and won him seats in the Michigan state legislature in 1853 and 1855. Not surprisingly, his power and authoritarian ways made him enemies inside and outside of his island kingdom. The issue of bloomers proved his downfall. In 1855 he angered island women by decreeing that they wear them under their skirts. When Thomas Bedford was whipped for defending his wife’s defiance (Strang’s explanation for the punishment was that Bedford was taken in adultery), Bedford plotted Strang’s murder. In June of 1856, he mortally wounded the leader he had followed to this island outback. As the King lay dying, vigilantes from around the Straits of Mackinac forced his subjects from the island. They left homes, farms and most of their earthly possessions behind.

If the weather during that exodus was as ominously dreary as it is today, I feel especially sorry for those poor souls. Well outside of the shelter of Paradise Bay, white ruffles are forming on the tops of waves. I try not to picture a flipped kayak, gorp sinking slowly, piece by piece, to the bottom of the lake.

Bruland has us pointing the noses of our boats to the low rubble on the horizon that is Pismire Island, about a five-mile paddle from Beaver. The inky smudge in the fog to the east, and much closer to our kayaks, is Garden Island. Bruland has promised us that if the weather cooperates we will stop there tomorrow. I hope so. Out of this archipelago of spiritual secrets, Garden holds the most. Among them is one of the largest Native American burial grounds in the Great Lakes. Garden is also where Miniss Kitigan Drum encamps every summer — an organization founded in 1978 by the late medicine woman Keewaydinoquay to teach traditional herbals and Algonquin spirituality.

Kee, as she was known, combined her university-trained ethnobotany (the study of plants in the context of culture) skills with instruction from her father’s Ojibwe people who’d lived on Garden Island when she was a child. She taught her philosophy in courses at the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin — to mostly non-Indian students, a practice that caused her to be shunned by much of the Native American community. Miniss Kitigan Drum began as field study for some of her Michigan students.

Kee was still alive the first time I had visited Garden in 1991. By then the 7-square-mile island was only inhabited during the summer — by Kee, her pupils and occasional campers. And snakes. About 4.5 million of them, nonpoisonous, a herpetologist from the Central Michigan Biological Station on Beaver Island had told me. "Why so many snakes?" I asked. The answer was the usual — lack of development, no cars (notorious snake killers), not many predators. All good reasons, but the archipelago’s other islands didn’t have that many snakes.

My husband had come with me, and we hiked out to meet Kee at her Miniss Kitigan Drum encampment by way of the Indian cemetery. It was a dark forest labyrinth of mounds, traditional wooden spirit houses and crosses that stretched as far as we could see into the trees. And there were snakes. Snakes slithering. Snakes stretched out on the tops of spirit houses. Snakes dangling from trees.

Kee was in her 70s, still striking with long, dark, just-graying hair. As she told me about the island’s fascinating flora, a snake glided past her feet and ants crawled up her leg. A redstart — usually a shy, flighty bird — perched on the ground near her feet. My husband still talks about that bird.

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Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    I met Kee in the summer of 1988 or 89. I was leading a canoe trip with about a dozen teenagers. We decided to hike across the island one rainy day. Kee’s grand-daughter met us on the trail as we accidentally stumbled into thier camp. She took us to meet Kee who noticed the severe case of poison ivy on my legs. She gave me a bottle of medicine made from jewel weed and other stuff. That bottle fixed me up in about 4 days….. Better than anything I ever got at a pharmacy.

    Bob M.