At 40, Eric Hemenway has already lived an interesting life. And not just because he took off backpacking for 10 years in southeast Asia and almost never came back. Or because he’s seen his fair share of trouble, almost lost his way and managed to turn his life around. It’s because in his world, time moves differently, the dead aren’t always gone, and even wrongs hundreds of years old aren’t beyond redemption.

It’s not often that Eric Hemenway gets to bury a whole person. In fact, it’s happened only once. That time it was a baby, or at least a skeleton of a child. Her skull and bones had been tucked into a cigar box after being dug up sometime in the 1890s during a road construction project near Detroit. There were 60 bodies accidentally excavated along with her, likely the population of an entire village. As was the practice at the time, someone from the road crew presumably contacted the nearest museum and delivered the remains there. And that’s where this cigar-box child remained, forgotten in some storage area for more than a hundred years. Until Eric Hemenway came asking about her, to put her back in the ground.

More often, he gets back just pieces of people. A finger bone, a shoulder blade, a vertebra—enough to remind you that you’re dealing with a real person, but not something that will send your imagination to a real existential place. Skulls are different. “Skulls are the most intense,” Hemenway says. “It’s someone’s face, it’s everything. One time, I had to go out to Nebraska to get remains. It was eight skulls and a big box of bones, and they were all young men in their 30s—like I was at the time. They were ancient people, too, like, 2,000 years old, and all from Michigan. You know, you can’t not wonder, ‘Who are you? And how did you die?’ I mean, I brought them back because I had to. But it was not a comfortable drive back with those guys in the car with me.”

Hemenway has about 300 such stories. That’s roughly how many people he brought back over the five years he led a “repatriation” program by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians to return the remains of Michigan’s indigenous people back to where they came from. How they got so far away is often anyone’s guess. If Hemenway’s lucky, the remains he targets for repatriation are at least tagged with a few details about where they were unearthed. But once they’re home, what happens is pretty straightforward: With the proper ceremony, he simply reburies them. There isn’t, as you might expect, any testing to determine the sex of the remains or to date them or collect DNA. Repatriation is not a scientific endeavor. It’s a spiritual kindness to the dead. A gesture that becomes necessary when people—sometimes through accident, but often through deliberate grave robbery—have suffered the indignity of an unburial.

The collecting and selling of Native American remains is a business that’s as old as European contact. It still happens today, in fact, though the shape of its economy has moved more underground over time. Back in the early 1700s, as Europeans pushed inward into the continent, the building of farms and settlements sometimes unearthed ancient burials, and when that happened, people would—as was presumably the case with the cigar-box child—often take them to local museums. “Because of this, museums often have these weird collections of people,” Hemenway says. “And it’s not just native people, but people from Asia and Africa—even white settlers and black slaves.” Hemenway says as little as 30 years ago, museums still had remains on display, though more often, ancient people just ended up in storage. If you were unlucky enough to be unburied, getting stowed away in a museum basement was actually one of the better things that could happen to you. “There was also a black market for remains. So people would actively seek out native burials and loot them to sell the bones and the items that were with the burials.”

Occasionally, Hemenway works with individuals to bring back remains, but it’s the museum collections that have proved particularly important to his work. Back in 1990, Congress passed a law requiring institutions like museums and universities to publish inventories of indigenous people they might have in their possession and return them upon request. This allowed tribes—at least those with federal status—to easily track down their dead and bring them home. In fact, most of the 300 or so people whom Hemenway managed to repatriate have come from public universities in Michigan.

And once in a while, the remains find him.

“Over the past several years, we actually have people contacting us because they know we do this work. For example, we get people whose grandparents or great-grandparents were ‘diggers.’ And the grandparent would die, and they’re going through the estate and they find a box of bones. And in those cases, we usually just have them meet us at a public location. Usually, we don’t even exchange names. They know who we are and what kind of work we do. But you can sometimes tell they feel a little bit guilty. And I just say, ‘Hey, I get that you’re sorry, but you didn’t dig them up.’ That usually puts people a little more at ease. Still, it’s nice to see that the message is out there. We want people to know that if you find someone, there’s a proper way to do this.”

From the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society Photographic Collection

If Hemenway had his way, he’d probably still be spending his days scanning online inventories, looking for ancestors who aren’t in the right place. But a few years ago, he was reassigned to work on education and outreach for the tribe. Today, he does things like organize efforts to install historical markers across the area so people can learn at least a paragraph’s-worth of history about the Odawa of Northern Michigan. But in some ways, it leans into the same issues: It’s about giving people alive today an opportunity to recognize that the present, no matter how natural or ordinary it feels, is a result of human action, not some inevitable arc of history.

Nowadays, one of his favorite things to do is lead school children around on history tours of Harbor Springs. Despite appearances, it’s a complicated place. The town of about 1,200 people is a postcard Northern Michigan resortland that, in the summer, moves to the rhythm of ice cream and beach life. Relaxed vacationers lazily stroll the downtown sidewalks lined with souvenir shops and open-air, come-as-you-are restaurants. This is not Hemenway’s Harbor Springs. To him, this is ancestral ground. Weekwitonsing [the tribe prefers this spelling over general culture’s Wequetonsing]. The place where his band of the Odawa have lived—first through birthright, and later through pluck and political struggle—for at least 3,000 years.

And the beach is not the beach.

Here, looking out over the sandy cove that is now the city’s waterfront park, Hemenway tugs the timeline back to 1835. For a moment, the sunbathers and the paddleboarders and the teenage lifeguard who’s reading a book vanish. Now, we’re here on a November day, watching his ancestors launch birch bark canoes into the bay. They’re hoping to reach Washington, D.C., in six weeks, and after that, win an audience with President Andrew Jackson. It’s a tough audience. Jackson was wielding the Indian Removal Act with little discretion—forcibly relocating tribes in the East and Great Lakes from their ancestral homelands into the newly designated “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma and Kansas. Relocation was a fate Hemenway’s band of the Odawa hoped to avoid at almost any cost, hence the 16 million acres of land they and five other tribes ceded in an 1836 treaty in exchange for a sliver around this bay—and the simple right to remain.

“Some people call it an agreement, but it’s hard to call something made under that kind of duress an agreement,” he says. “The tribe gave up almost everything to retain literally little dots of land on a map. But what’s the alternative? Oklahoma, Kansas. And forever. All the tribes that got removed are still out there, and they’re not coming back anytime soon. But us, we’re still here.”

Holy Children Boarding School and Church circa 1880, Harbor Springs Area Historical Society Photographic Collection

It’s a “here” that’s even smaller today than in 1836. Through subsequent unilateral actions by Congress, the tribe gradually lost more slices of Weekwitonsing, which is why this spot here is now a city beach. Downtown Harbor Springs has all kinds of these places that aren’t the places they used to be, some of which have only recently been erased from the landscape. A few hundred yards from the beach, where a new community center was built in 2008, once stood a Catholic-run Indian boarding school—one of about a hundred schools that were part of a federal government education/assimilation program for Native American students. (In fact, the boarding school in Harbor Springs, demolished in 2007, remained open until 1983, making it one of the last in the nation to close.) And on a small piece of land jutting out into Lake Michigan stands one of the most sacred places of the Odawa. Hemenway explains this is where, pre-European contact, the Odawa banished an evil spirit, entombing it in a pond at the tip of the peninsula. Today, that pond has been filled and the peninsula houses a gated community with million-dollar vacation homes. It’s a place Hemenway can’t even drive through unless he knows someone who lives inside.

I ask him, straight up, the obvious: How all this doesn’t make him angry? He’s diplomatic. With his job, he has to be. “I work out a lot,” is what he finally says when pushed a little. It’s true. Hemenway’s arms are almost as big around as his head, and you get the sense that he’s only half joking about his workout regimen being an “anger-management” tool. (There’s also, for instance, a perpetual pile of ultra-hardcore metal CDs on the passenger seat of his car.) But he admits living here in the summer can be a little surreal. As we drive down Main Street, it’s hard to miss the large totem pole sticking straight up from the lawn in front of a small white building. “Yeah—not us,” he says shaking his head and laughing a little. He’s not exactly offended by it, more exasperated. Totem poles—a symbol common to tribes in the Pacific Northwest—are about 2,000 miles out of place in Weekwitonsing. Moreover, he tells me the building is the historical home of Andrew Blackbird—a legendary Odawa chief and seminal historian of the tribe. Today, the building houses the Harbor Springs Chamber of Commerce (though, to be fair, it also contains a few historical exhibits devoted to Blackbird).

As a historian, Hemenway has an easier time than most peeling back the layers of this superimposed present and seeing into the past. In fact, for him, it appears to be an active practice. He says sometimes, when he’s out for a walk on the neighborhood streets, he becomes aware of the fact that he’s probably taking almost the identical steps his ancestors did—contemplating different but equally puzzling versions of the question of how to remain. The connection to his ancestors is not just intellectual either: His dead are actually here, nearby, in the hills that surround Harbor Springs and hundreds of miles up and down the lakeshore. And for the Odawa, that means an opportunity to still interact with them, be guided by them, which is one of the reasons they were willing to give up nearly everything to stay here.

“The Odawa have a very strong belief that their dead are with them at all times,” he explains. “People leave, but the spirits always stay. This was one of the key arguments for the tribe over why they felt they needed to stay. How I understand the concept of death is that when you die, you leave this body, but your spirit transitions to a different world. But it can interact with this world at any time. So you have to be where the ancestors are. And the ancestors aren’t in Oklahoma or Kansas. They’re right here.”

From the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society Photographic Collection

Later in the afternoon, we jostle in line with the crush of tourists to grab a quick coffee before contemplating our next stop on the reality tour. We decide to venture out from the city, and after brushing aside the pile of “Devil music” on the passenger seat of his car, Hemenway drives us north out of Harbor Springs. On M119, just past the scenic Tunnel of Trees, we pass a sign for Cross Village, one of the largest historical Odawa settlements and where he grew up. He tells me how he was raised by his mom and grandma in a “typical Indian family,” where a dozen aunts, uncles and cousins might also be living with them at any given time. How his mother worked 10 hours a day cleaning houses and they were still poor—as was every other Indian family he knew. But it wasn’t the kind of situation where everyone was poor so no one realized it. His mother made sure he knew their circumstances had a social context. “In the early ’80s, my mom got involved actively with the tribe and she was wanting to find her roots and learn more about the identity of being Indian. And so I would hear all the time about justice. I mean, I just remember her attitude. It was ‘This is our land and our rights and that’s it.’”

When he tells it, you can tell it’s one of his favorite stories about his mom: The time when he was 10 years old, and his mom decided she was going to take him out to collect sap for making maple syrup because as she put it, “that’s what our ancestors did so that’s what we’re going to do.”

“I was like, ‘Alright, ma.’ And we were boiling the sap at our house in Cross Village, but we were tapping trees on state land. And we didn’t have a permit. And, of course, my mom was like, ‘We don’t need a permit, this is our land,’” he says, laughing. “So we’re there tapping trees, and we’re trudging through the snow, hauling these huge buckets of sap—and the DNR shows up. And they were like, ‘Do you have permits for this?’ And no joke, my mom just literally dropped the bucket right there, went right up to this guy, and was like, ‘I do not need a permit from the State of Michigan to harvest resources my ancestors harvested a thousand years ago. Take me to jail, I’m exercising my treaty rights.’ And this guy was just like, ‘Whoa, okay, just make sure you clean everything up when you’re done.’ I mean, she was pretty hardcore.”

It’s not the only story of plucky civil disobedience Hemenway can charm you with, in part because his childhood overlapped a particularly volatile time for the tribe. In the 1980s, the Little Traverse Bay Band was not a tribe specifically recognized by the U.S. government. As such, it lacked a significant federal designation that would have guaranteed things like certain fishing rights and access to federal money to provide social services to the community. So without that, those with the courage decided to reclaim rights they felt they were still due under past treaties.

“It was an intense time,” Hemenway says. “In the 1970s and ’80s, fishing became a really hot topic in the Great Lakes, where native fishermen were exercising their rights that they retained through treaties. But the state Department of Natural Resources and sport fisherman were coming out against native fishermen using gill nets. And it got so hot that shots were actually red between native and non-native fisherman. Eventually, in 1979, this became a federal case, and the judge ruled with the tribes, saying they had these fishing rights. But the kicker was you had to be a member of a federally recognized tribe. And in 1979, there were only a handful of federally recognized tribes, and Little Traverse Bay wasn’t.”

Ultimately, the tribe decided to make a push for federal status—though not via a traditional application through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Instead, they decided to make a legal argument that their past treaties, negotiated with Andrew Jackson, et al., proved that they were indeed already a federally recognized tribe and that therefore their federal status need only be reaffirmed. It was nothing that had ever been tried before, and no one knew if it would really work.

“We went right over the BIA and had to go before Congress to this Indian Affairs Senate committee hearing. And the individual that was supposed to chair the committee was Senator Inouye, a native Hawaiian and Democrat. I mean, we were like, this is the guy we want to hear our case. But the day of the hearing, he gets pulled off. And they put Senator John McCain in his place—you know, staunch Republican from Arizona. We weren’t preparing for McCain, but what do you do? You can’t go back. You present the case. And it was this huge dramatic moment: Various members of our community gave their testimony and they just knocked it out of the park. We had this book made detailing the history of the tribe. And apparently McCain was flipping through it, and he just slammed it down on the desk, and was like, ‘They’ve got a book. Give them their justice.’”

We get back in the car and Hemenway takes me to the place in space and time where that movement for reaffirmation started to take shape. “Man, I haven’t been out here in years,” he says, pulling a breath deep down in his chest. He looks around at the trees circling Wycamp Lake for familiar landmarks, things that have changed enough since his childhood to disorient his memory. “I think our camp was over here. We lived just down the road, but we’d still camp here during the treaty councils. We would have 400 some people out here. We borrowed tents from the National Guard in Grayling because we had no money. We even had a teepee out here, even though our people didn’t have teepees. We just thought it would be cool to have one for the elders. There would be pots of food cooking constantly, and people talking, discussing, for hours and hours and hours. The people that were out here, you’ll hear tons of stories about Wycamp in the ’80s. It’s sort of a legendary place now.”

It’s a time and place that has clearly left a mark on him, and he’s generous with the shout-outs to this or that elder who played a role. People like Solomon Francis, a tribal historian who lived in a now-vacant tarpaper shack just past the Tunnel of Trees, and was instrumental in stitching together the history that was crucial to the tribe’s legal case. Or Yvonne Walker-Keschick, a warm, low-key woman who on the day I visit is quietly teaching a traditional basket-weaving class, but who, back in the day, took the night shift guarding fishing equipment for native fishermen with a rifle. Or his mother, Peggy Hemenway, who after working all day would then work for five more hours at their kitchen table as the tribe’s unofficial secretary. He knows now how hard she worked. He has the proof. As an archivist for the tribe, Hemenway has dug through the old records from the 1980s and has seen how all the tribe’s official correspondence was getting funneled through his home address in Cross Village. “I remember the kitchen table laid out with all these letters and paperwork. Now I know what it was all for.”

It’s a part of the tribe’s history that has also begun to transform the larger Harbor Springs community, albeit slowly.

Hemenway has a photograph in their archives showing a sign that used to be in downtown: “Welcome to Harbor Springs. The water is pure. The air is clean. Leave all your worries behind. The natives are here to serve you.” Today, federal recognition has led to the building of a casino, a strengthening of community services and more economic opportunities for the area’s indigenous population. Eight freshly planted historical markers Hemenway helped create now dot the landscape, with more on the way. Odawa is even one of the languages taught in the public high school. And a local arts organization, which also used to have a totem pole sticking out of its front lawn, voted a few years ago to take it down. One down, one to go.

And then there’s a small exhibit at the local historical museum, courtesy of a guy named Bob. Bob, a retired businessman who lives in St. Louis and vacations in Harbor Springs during the summer. A middle-aged white man who collects Indian artifacts from all over the continent and who invited Hemenway and some of his colleagues out to his home to borrow “whatever we wanted” for an exhibit on Native Americans of the Great Lakes. Hemenway says he was blown away, both by the generosity of the offer and by the collection, which he says is “Smithsonian-level.” “After meeting Bob, it changed my opinion about collectors,” Hemenway says. “He loaned us the stuff, but he insisted that we should tell the story. That’s pretty progressive for a private collector.”

Still, Hemenway tells me that when he got out there, he couldn’t help but notice that some of the artifacts were actually sacred objects, things which should be permanently returned to the tribe. I ask him if he was tempted to make the repatriation case with Bob. He pauses, taking a deep breath, looking for the right words: “Bob knows where to find us.” It’s an answer filled with both patience and an edge of moral urgency. A fitting response from a person who has, with his hands, helped right wrongs that are hundreds of years old and openly admires past generations’ nuance in playing the long game.

Indeed, Bob knows where to find them. They’ll be where they’ve always been.

Featured in the April 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Native Americans in Northern Michigan:

Photo(s) by Jon-Paul Allgaier