November is Native American Heritage Month. Michigan is home to 12 federally-recognized Indian tribes. That includes the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan in Mt. Pleasant.
The tribe proclaims they are working together for their future. Tonya Antoine and her work at the 7th Generation Elijah Elk Culture Center best describes that.
“Being able to use our traditional medicines, learning the language that I know," Antoine said, describing how she keeps her heritage alive.
“When you say medicine, what are the medicines and how do they help?” TV5’s Blake Keller asked.
“We have four sacred medicines. We have cedar, which is like a cleansing thing. There are lots of uses for it actually. We have sage, which is another cleanser that people use to smudge down our traditional foods before or after or during different ceremonies. We have our traditional tobacco that we utilize almost on a daily basis that we offer to the creator to say thank you for this way of life and everything that you have given us. We also have sweet grass that is also a traditional medicine that we acknowledge as Mother Earth's hair,” Antoine said. "It's a sovereign thing being able to continue utilizing those medicines in a good way and being able to pass that down on how to grow."
Eric Sowmick's, or Clear Sky -his spirit name, traditions came from his father.
”When you're having a hard time or having a good time, always put down your tobacco in meaning," Sowmick recalled his father telling him. "To have these ceremonies and have a place to come and get knowledge that has been passed down to help out the kids in the community, these items we make here, this tobacco pouch, we sew these up and put our tobacco in there, it's more than just tobacco."
The same could be said for Daniel Jackson. He was drawn into the tribal game of lacrosse.
“I was like, what do I want the kids to learn? This was one of the things I had to learn so I can teach it in the classroom and I wanted to learn all I could to the point where I made our own equipment and creations story and actually plan and doing it," Jackson said.
There’s a special story behind it.
"It's a healing game,” he said. “When our elders would watch us play, and see one of us get hurt, they kind of forget about the pain going on in their bodies," Jackson said.
These traditions don’t touch the surface. There are other cultural mainstays of the tribe, like the annual Pow Wow or “niimi'idiwin.”
"They all have these long-historied stories behind them. Yes, there's always a story in everything that we do. There's always been a history behind it. We don't do it just to do it. We do it because that's how we live. That's mino-bimaadiziwin -- that’s our good life," Antoine said.
There’s a difficulty in keeping parts of the heritage alive.
“Yes, it’s been a challenge since the time I was small,” Antoine said.
Like teaching the Ojibwe’ language. Right now, there are less than five fluent speakers in the tribe. There’s hope for the tribe’s longevity. Antoine’s son wants to be a keeper of the culture.
“It's important for him as a young man to continue to carry on our cultural knowledge," she said.
The strong spiritual connection kept this tribe grounded. Especially during the loss of 16 family members to COVID-19.
"Every month, having to start a fire for our loved ones. We have a protocol that we follow when we lose our people," Antoine explained. "So, having our culture has really really helped mentally get us through those hard times."
For Sowmick, the culture put him back on a righteous path.
"It saved my life. The culture and the people that picked me back up," he said.
Keeping the culture alive is vital because it was taken once before. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe is sure to not let it happen again.
“I know it was taken away and I want it back,” Jackson said.
"We don't waste anything. The creator puts stuff here for a reason, but don't take advantage of it because you can lose it," Antoine said.
The 7th Generation Elijah Elk Culture Center is located on the Saginaw Ojibwe’ Ishkoongange Doonjabah (Saginaw Chippewa Reservation) in Mt. Pleasant. For more information, visit their website.