Indigenous History of Grand Rapids

We acknowledge that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Anishinabek, including the Odawa, Ojibwa, and Bodéwadmi peoples, who are the original caretakers and relatives of this land. We honor their enduring presence and contributions to this region. We recognize the painful history of colonization, forced removal, and ongoing struggles for justice and sovereignty. As we pay our respects to the past and present, we commit ourselves to supporting Indigenous communities and advocating for their rights and well-being. 

Let us honor and uplift the Indigenous peoples of Grand Rapids and beyond. Together, may we strive for justice, reconciliation, and a future built upon solidarity. 

Indigenous History of Grand Rapids 

Indigenous peoples have inhabited the greater Grand Rapids area for approximately 11,000 years before the arrival of European settlers in 1650. Among the earliest known inhabitants were the Hopewell Indians, who thrived from around 400 B.C. to 400 A.D. The Hopewell were renowned mound builders, leaving behind intricate earthworks that served various purposes, including burial sites and religious centers. 

One of the most significant Hopewell mounds in the western Great Lakes region is the Norton Mound Group, situated on the banks of the Grand River southwest of downtown Grand Rapids. Today, this site is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is owned and protected by the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Excavations of the area have provided invaluable insights into the Hopewell culture, though it’s essential to acknowledge the destructive impact such endeavors had on sacred Indigenous sites. 

Ah-Nab-Awen Park, the venue for the River Rally Celebration on Wednesday, May 15, is the site of what was once an indigenous village. Ah-Nab-Awen means “resting place” in the Anishinaabemowin language and several small hills in the park commemorate the burial mounds that once stood here. Numerous art pieces and interpretive markers tell the tale of the land’s past and present.

The Hopewell are regarded as ancestors to the tribes known collectively as the People of the Three Fires: the Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwa (Chippewa), and Bodéwadmi (Potawatomi) peoples. By 1700 A.D., these tribes had established communities in and around present-day Grand Rapids, with the Odawa chiefs governing the lands along the Grand River, which they called Owashtanong. 

The session “Reconciliation Ecology: Addressing Historical and Current Injustices by Restoring Relationships in the Plaster Creek Watershed” will explore this history. Session leaders will describe how reconciliation ecology is being enacted through the watershed restoration work of Plaster Creek Stewards and their community partners, who are working to change the future story of this watershed by addressing broken relationships. Refusing to accept environmental injustice, severely reduced biodiversity, and contaminated waters unfit for children’s play, session leaders will provide inspiration and specific recommendations for doing reconciliation ecology everywhere.

Despite the resilience and adaptability of the Indigenous peoples in the region, the arrival of European settlers drastically altered their lives. The signing of the Treaty of Chicago in 1821 ceded control of vast territories to the United States, leading to forced removals, land seizures, and the displacement of Native communities. Despite these challenges, the descendants of the Anishinabek continue to persevere, preserving their cultural heritage and traditions. 

Read the full story, “History of Native Americans in Grand Rapids.” 

At the plenary session, “Legacy of Justice,” hear from 2024 Legacy Awardee John Echohawk, who has been recognized as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal for his work and leadership. He has personally touched nearly a third of all Indian water rights cases that have resulted in settlements, each of which were spearheaded by local river, water and justice leaders.

Take Action 

We encourage all River Rally attendees to take tangible actions to support Indigenous communities while we’re in Grand Rapids. Here are some suggestions from the Native Governance Center’s A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgement. 

  • Support Indigenous Organizations: Consider donating your time or resources to Indigenous-led organizations dedicated to advocacy, cultural preservation, and community empowerment.
  • Amplify Indigenous Voices: Advocate for Indigenous-led grassroots movements and campaigns, and encourage others to do the same. Elevate Indigenous perspectives and prioritize their voices in discussions about land rights, environmental justice, and social equity.
  • Commit to Returning Land: Educate yourself about land return initiatives and support efforts to return ancestral lands to Indigenous communities. This may involve advocating for policy changes at the local, state, or federal level, or exploring personal avenues for returning land to Indigenous ownership.

We encourage all River Rally attendees to explore information and resources provided by local tribes and donate wherever possible.