The Fire Not Forgotten

After World War II, cottages and summer homes sprang up along the point. And some time between then and now, no one knows exactly when, Indian Point came to be known as Colonial Point. “To this day I call it Indian Point,” says Bill Massey, a member of the Burt Lake Indian Tribe. “I’ve never called it Colonial Point.”

Massey is standing waist deep in a freshly dug grave at the cemetery at St. Mary’s Indian Mission Church near Indian Point, leaning on his shovel. It’s a sweltering August day, and sweat beads along the thick black hair at his temples. The low drones of a perky country song warble from the open back door of his white minivan, parked at the edge of the surrounding woods.

Massey is the Burt Lake Band’s de facto gravedigger, and has been since his 20’s, when an elder Indian handed him his shovel nearly 40 years ago. All his life Massey has lived in the shadow of the burnout—both sets of his grandparents lost their homes in the event, and Massey himself was raised in a small house on Mundt Road, right across from the field where his grandparents’ homes had gone up in flames. Yet, he says, his family rarely spoke of the burnout.

“We’d overhear a little in conversation, know there was a lot of hurt and pain there,” he says. “But they didn’t like to talk about it, and we didn’t question them on a lot of stuff.”

Perhaps they didn’t have to. Even a half-century later, prejudice and injustice were hardly lost on the younger generation of Indians. Growing up, Massey says he was constantly mocked and bullied by local white kids. At age 13, he was taken from his mother and put in a foster home in Cheboygan until age 18. His brother, he says, was sent to a boys home in Nebraska. Both had been deemed—falsely, he says—neglected and malnourished.

Nevertheless, Massey says he was also raised with a strong sense of faith and pride in his heritage. He nods toward St. Mary’s across the yard. The Indians who remained after the burnout came together in 1909 to build the modest white church. His father was one of them.

With a grunt, Massey hefts himself out of the grave. He lifts his thick glasses and wipes the perspiration away from his eyes, then crosses between two rows of stone markers toward the Mission’s front doors.

Inside the church, the air is distinctly cooler. The only light is cast by narrow beams of sunlight that crisscross from the small windows lining the walls. Despite its tall, proud steeple, it is an unfussy, wood-frame structure—small, simple and tidy. It is also less than a mile from the site of the burnout, where the only remaining evidence of the Indian village that once stood there is the old tribe cemetery, a postage-stamp sized plot of land framed by weathered fences and dotted with white crosses, sprigs of cedar and artificial flowers.

Massey stops at the last row of pews, his soft voice echoing inside the church. He says he suspects the fences surrounding the old cemetery aren’t placed correctly, that there are bodies buried beyond the boundaries. He says he’d like to hire someone who can determine that for sure, so the band can properly honor all of their dead with marked graves.

Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    I can’t put into words the impact reading your article on the web about the burn-out on Indian Point made on me.

    Outrage, and then sadness overwhelmed me as I read your account of the mistreatment of a group of people living, and working in Michigan. The complicity of the law, and state, in perpetuating this atrocity, should always keep us alert to what government can do, if good people are not vigilent. (It sounds eerily similar to what happened in Waco, Texas just a decade ago, so yes, such atrocities can happen again.)

    Where are the calls for reparation? Where are the calls for justice?

    Tribute goes to those people who after enduring such an event, went on and began working toward the future without looking back. Now that, is truly honorable.

    George Ranville
    Grand Rapids, MI

  • http://community.mynorth.com/members/maurice-eby/ Maurice Eby

    This article is very good, but did make some avoidable factual mistakes. The tip of Indian Point was bought by Samuel H. Price [a white man] on September 12, 1854 from the U.S. government. (Cheboygan County Clerk Records) John and Caroline Riggs [white people] sold this property to Robert Patterson in October of 1879. This parcel was 45 acres. McGinn never obtained this prime piece of land, but George Humphrey did seize it in a tax sale in 1893 from the white owner,Patterson. He sold it to Pittsburg people who built The Colonial Point Hotel in 1902. An official county map of 1903 calls this area Colonial Point. The hotel went broke and burned in about 1909. The girls camp was on former hotel property and in operation by 1916. I have a picture postcard from 1916. According to deeds, Chick Lathers bought the McGinn property in 1923.