But is it truly possible to redress these wrongs? A burial site mismarked? A village torched? A people displaced and disenfranchised? Massey slides his hands into his jeans pockets and seems to search the floor for an answer. “Whatever help the band needed, I think it should have happened 100 years ago.” But, he adds, people and prejudices have changed—however slowly. “The government though, I don’t know,” Massey says, indirectly referring to the fact that though the Burt Lake Indians have been applying for federal recognition since the 1970’s, they are one of the only bands in Michigan that has not yet received it. Federal status would open up funding for healthcare, housing, education and employment.
Massey says he has faith the band will earn its long-overdue recognition. (This September, however, the Department of Interior rejected the application again.) He points to a mosaic above the altar. It portrays a serene Virgin Mary, who looks out over the congregation. Her skin is colored an unmistakably warm shade of brown. Massey grins. “That was no accident,” he says.
In 2004, the Burt Lake Band got word they would see at least one wound healed: The sign that had so enraged Curtis Chambers and other members of the Burt Lake Band would be removed and rewritten. Together, the band, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Historical Society of Cheboygan County had crafted language for a new sign. Its words would read:
“Of all the lawmen who lived in this building, Sheriff Frederick Ming (1865–1943) was the most notorious. He was a farmer, a veterinarian, and a state legislator who fought for the tuberculosis sanatorium in Gaylord. As sheriff, however, in October 1900, Ming forced the Burt Lake Indian people from their homes at Indian Village and stood by with his deputies while land speculator John McGinn burned the village in a land grab. The burnout left most of the Indian people homeless and impoverished.”
And so on a cold, snowy evening in December, three generations of Burt Lake Band Indians, a crowd of local citizens and members of the local historical society stood shoulder to shoulder around the old sign. Bill Massey’s niece, Nongose, crouched before it, twisting a screwdriver to remove it from its post. Behind her stood the grand brick house Ming had gone home to after setting fire to her ancestor’s homes more than 100 years before. Finally, under a light snowfall, the last screw gave way, and though there would never be a way to rewrite history, a new sign would arrive that spring. And for the moment, that was enough.
Lynda Twardowski is travel editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s [email protected]
Note: This article was first published in November 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.