Land and its Legacies for Learning:
Teaching Indigenous Resilience in the Face of Persistent Colonial Power
What can one student do to decolonize sustainability education?
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Primary author's statement, drafted November 2017
My name is John Minode’e Petoskey, Banaiisawadamok (the sound of thunderbirds). I am an Odawa Anishinaabe and I belong to the turtle clan. I am a graduate of the School for Environment and Sustainability and the University of Michigan Law School. I grew up in Kitchiwikwedongsing, Gitchi-gaamik - Peshawbestown, Michigan, the reservation of my tribe the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
This case presents materials related to the legacy of the "Burt Lake Burnout" for the University of Michigan community. The Burt Lake Burnout was the forced removal of nineteen Anishinaabe families from their ancestral homeland on Burt Lake in 1900. These families were members of the Burt Lake Band of Odawa Indians and were parties to the Treaty of Detroit (1855) which promised them a homeland on a point on Burt Lake. Nevertheless, their homes were set on fire by the county sheriff at the behest of a lumber and land speculation company who had acquired title to their land through a series of fraudulent tax assessments. The land where the village stood - now referred to as "Colonial Point" - is now owned by the University of Michigan and administered by the Biological Station. Land not owned by the University is occupied by million-dollar summer homes.
The land has been logged of the old growth trees that once lined the Burt Lake Band's village. With the death of these trees so too died the memory of this tragic event among the populace of the State of Michigan. But the Indigenous people of our state did not forget. Throughout my life I have had many interactions with descendants of those affected by the burnout. They have told me their memories of their grandmothers and grandfathers longing to return to their precious point. When I came to my School for Environment and Sustainability orientation at the Biostation, I remembered these conversations, and it occurred to me that I was standing in the homeland of the Burt Lake band. The juxtaposition of seeing my classmates gleam with joy at the beauty of this place against my own feelings of deep spiritual sorrow at the memory of the Burnout made me feel like an outsider. Sorrow quickly turned to action. I then endeavored to do right by the memory of this village and its people. I petitioned the University to study this history and commemorate it in a respectful manner - this includes expanding curriculum surrounding indigenous history, indigenous environmental policy, and environmental justice.
This module is a part of this effort. The content of this case will discuss the status of tribes in Michigan, the specific history of the Burt Lake Burnout and the story of how the University has responded to bringing light to this history. By the end of this case you will be conversant in (1) what a tribe is and its roles and responsibilities within our constitutional system, (2) the history of the Burt Lake Band and the Burt Lake Burnout, (3) the history of the University's acquisition of the Colonial Point and their response to the petition submitted by Native American students and faculty, and (4) what this history means for sustainability education at the School for Environment and Sustainability and beyond.
Finally, although collaboratively written with others in such a way that the protagonist is a woman, I think that learners will also better understand my own and perhaps other Anishanaabe students' contradictory emotions as we move through UM landscapes and infrastructures toward our educational milestones. To that end, the author team would like to thank the many UMSEAS students who have provided comments, suggestions and feedback on this case, including Jess Yan, Sarah Collins, Paige Schurr, Tori Griffin, Jordan Larson, Maisy Rohrer, Maxime Groen, Cara Thuringer, and Lauren Balotin.