The old adage says ‘history is written by the winners’. In this story, we’re going to let it be written by the survivors. Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan was one of the first white settlements in the state. But for centuries before, it was home to Native American tribes.
When the French voyagers arrived, the ensuing culture clash devastated native peoples.
For this story, in the beginning there was water. The Great Lakes, and the St Mary’s River, an area with many resources that attracted Native people. Cecil Pavlat is a member of the Sault Ste Marie Band of Chippewa Indians. He said his tribe has been here literally forever. He said Native tribes settled in Sault Ste Marie largely because of the water. They fished the river and traveled on it. They interacted freely with native people across the river in what’s now Canada. He described a people that was largely peaceful, natural, and not at all ready for what was headed their way. Namely French explorers.They traveled in on the lakes and rivers. And, as they say in real estate, it’s all about location. The French liked what they saw and decided to stay. This is where problems began.
“We thought we were sharing the land with these people and not giving them land,” Pavlat said, “We didn’t own it so how can we give it? The concept of land ownership really affected us.”
We all know the history; treaties were signed, treaties were discarded, new ones drawn up. Native people died from disease, accident and intent.
Pavlat recalled, “We talk about the disease infested blankets that were intentionally given, you talk about the effort to kill off the buffalo, because the buffalo was a food supply, you know this was more plains, native tribes. You know the boarding schools, you know the all out killing of complete villages you know old people, young people.As a resilient people you know we were able to deal with all those type strategies that would be you now considered uh, genocidal.”
Harsh words from a man who grew up in the tribe. Who spent more than a decade helping with repatriation; that is bringing the remains of native ancestors back to tribal lands for burial. Pavlat said today the tribe has largely assimilated. “You have to play the game of life, and so we have to play within the constraints or within the boundaries of what that life is today, and so to do that now, we need that money. We need the economic ability to provide.”
Some of their financial stability comes from casinos. Tribal members have also retained special rights to hunt and fish. Something that, Pavlat said, can annoy non-tribal people. “You know those things were negotiated in those treaties, and I’ve had people say, ‘well those treaties were signed 300 years ago, well how can they apply today’ Well what about the constitution of the United States, when was that signed? you know? Does that document meaningless?”
Pavlat painted a grim picture of the history of the Sault. He said for a long time he was angry. Eventually he realized he had to get past it or it would consume him. It’s a journey, he said many other survivors have taken before him. and not everyone understands. ”Another young man had asked, “well don’t you forgive and forget?” and by all means we forgive, but why would we ever forget?”