GVSU project will document urban Native American history

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A project led by a Grand Valley State University group aims to create the first archival collection of urban Native American experiences in West Michigan.

“Gi-gikinomaage-min: Defend Our History, Unlock Your Spirit” is led by the Grand Valley Native American Advisory Board and is funded in part by a planning grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Melanie Shell-Weiss, director of the Kutsche Office of Local History at Grand Valley, said the project comes from interest in how the Urban Relocation Program of the 20th century impacted generations of Native Americans. The program created one of the largest movements of Native Americans in U.S. history and remains largely undocumented and unexplored. 

“The Native experience in Grand Rapids and West Michigan is part of a much bigger story about one of the largest forced movements of people in the world,” said Shell-Weiss. “It’s a story most people don’t know about, so it’s difficult for educators and community members to learn about it. Our goal with this project is to preserve and share history.”

The project will kick off with a community history harvest on Thursday, November 13, 6-8 p.m. at the Nattawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Northern Health Center, 311 State St., Grand Rapids; refreshments will be provided. Individuals who want to share their family’s stories are encouraged to bring photos, letters and other two-dimensional materials. 

Kristie Scanlon, assistant director for the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Grand Valley, said the overall goal of the project is to digitally record 50-60 stories. Grand Valley’s Special Collections and Archives office will collect the information and it will be shared online. “Storytelling is a Native American tradition. Stories are passed down from generation to generation, and we’d like to help with that through this project,” Scanlon said. 

Shell-Weiss said the current grant will be used to frame the project, identify individuals willing to share their stories and survey existing resources in West Michigan. The project team will apply for a larger grant to fund the rest of the three-to-five-year project. 

For more information, call the Kutsche Office at (616) 331-8099 or the Office of Multicultural Affairs at (616) 331-2217.