In the classic works of Grand Rapids history, there is a strong portrayal of Native Americans as existing only in the past tense. They appear in discussions of pre-history, as subjects for religious conversion, business partners for trade, and relics of the past. By and large, Native Americans are rendered absent from the history of Grand Rapids following the Treaty of 1836, aside from occasional mentions. A quote from Z.Z. Lydens’ 1966 history of Grand Rapids is typical, referring to the time when “…the last Indian had disappeared or had faded into amalgamation.”cxlii It’s a process of invisibilizing that occurs to this day, despite the broadening of the historical discipline. Native Americans are seen as footnotes to a story of white people and their role on the land now occupied by Grand Rapids is ignored. Even when issues are raised about the lack of diversity in Grand Rapids, it is rare that indigenous people are considered.cxliii
The effects of colonialism exist to this day. Across the United States, indigenous populations – despite their existence against all odds – continue to be on the receiving end of often hostile government policies. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the ways in which indigenous peoples are harmed by the settler government, as a general rule it is sufficient to say that indigenous people by and large are a highly vulnerable population due to the ongoing impacts of colonization. Nationwide about 28.4% of Native Americans live in poverty (almost twice the national rate) and unemployment is around 49%.cxliv There continue to be legal battles over treaty rights, politicians frequently try to get out of treaty obligationscxlv, and corporations (often with government collusion) seek natural resources on native lands. At the same time, despite efforts at perseverance, indigenous traditions continue to be seen by the dominant society as inferior.
The conquest of Grand Rapids is important, not just as a way of understanding history, but as a means of understanding the foundations of the city many of us call home. It was established on land that was stolen from an indigenous population. There was no fair payment, no equal exchange – it was theft. The settler culture of white Europeans tried to clear the land of its indigenous population and eliminate their culture. They did this out of a sense of entitlement and superiority, believing that their way of life and their race were superior. This pattern was repeated across the United States with uncountable atrocities being committed against the indigenous populations of this continent. As the lands were cleared of their original inhabitants, the settlers began the process of clearing what was once a vast and varied landscape and replanting it for farming and large scale agricultural and extraction based industries. The land no longer was seen as a basis for survival, but rather as a basis for profit.
As a settler nation that was formed on the basis of conquest, the colonial ideology runs deep. The United States, as much as one can speak about a monolithic entity, is profoundly influenced by this colonization. It may be cliché to talk of Frederick Jackson Turner and the influence of the frontier on the American psyche, but over a hundred years later, the mythology of progress and conquest is alive and well. On a worldwide scale, the United States continues to act in a way that asserts its culture, lifestyle, and government is the best. Over the years, the media portrayals of indigenous populations, from books to television shows, reinforce the ideology that indigenous people were inferior and had to be removed. Not only were lands stolen and lifeways outlawed, but indigenous cultures were also plundered. Indigenous names were stolen, placed on settler maps and even used to name everything from weapons systems to cars. Indigenous people are routinely mocked through the use of sporting team names, mascots who pretend to be native, and teams that are named after the atrocities of colonial war.
The will to dominate land and the belief that one way of living is superior manifests itself on a local level as well. When the city was formed, indigenous trails were co-opted for use by settlers. These streets included Butterworth, Monroe, Grandville, Kalamazoo, Lake Drive, Plainfield, Walker, and Stocking.cxlvi As the land was stolen, the development patterns made use of existing indigenous paths. Moreover, as colonialization stole the land, the mentality of colonialism profoundly impacts how we view the city. For example, the Grand River – once seen by the indigenous inhabitants as a source of life – is still seen by city boosters as a source of profit. It’s valued less as a natural phenomenon, but instead as a generator of economic activity. The government of today – like the industrialists of early Grand Rapids – still seek to shape the river for economic needs. Similarly, the colonial notion that populations can be dominated and deposed of their land has its parallels today. It’s no accident that the language of gentrification often invokes that of the frontier myth. The largely vulnerable populations who live in gentrifying neighborhoods are often seen as obstacles to be removed. While not wanting to create crude equivalencies, there is a colonial mentality that shapes how these discussions are framed. The idea that certain land uses and cultures are superior – especially when those destroy existing cultural institutions in gentrifying neighborhoods – is a colonial mentality.
Furthermore, the notion of “progress” which is used to justify everything from the malevolent (theft of land) to the benevolent (greater “inclusion” of minority populations) acts of government is a colonial idea. Progress assumes that history is on a steady march towards something better and that increased technology, new ways of living, and the present, are always better than the past. So to return to an earlier example, the use of the Grand River for steamboat transportation is better than the use of the river for food. A more contemporary example might be that the opening of a flashy new cafe is better than the hall that once served as an anchor for an immigrant community. The idea of progress assumes that there are no missteps and that everything new is automatically better. Moreover, it assumes that things cannot stay as they are, but that change is always good.
Colonialism had an undeniable impact on the city that is now known as Grand Rapids and it is built into its founding fabric. This legacy looms over the city – quite literally in the case of the massive mural celebrating the city’s founding in 1826. That mural celebrates the arrival of white settlers and their way of life. The two men featured on the mural – Louis Campau and Charles Belknap – embody the colonialist view of indigenous people. Campau orchestrated the theft of this region, supplying alcohol to the indigenous people, while Belknap participated in the plunder of indigenous burial mounds. The fact that they are celebrated and that indigenous people are excluded, is a perfect summary of how colonialism functions.
The foundations of this city – of every city on this land – are constructed by the ideals and realities of colonialism. It’s impossible to affect meaningful change without crashing against and being constrained by this structural legacy. Any liberatory change must shake the foundations of the city itself.
cxlii Lydens, 30.
cxliii Paola Mendivil, “New Experience GR video misses mark in representing real neighborhood diversity,” The Rapidian, January 22, 2016, accessed January 23, 2016, http://www.therapidian.org/new-experience-grand-rapids-video-misses-mark-diversity-neighborhoods
cxliv Brian Bienkowski, “Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: A Michigan Tribe Battles a Global Corporation”, Scientific American, June 12, 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/pollution-michigan-tribe-battle-global-corp/
cxlv “West Michigan Legislator wants to Renege on Obligations to Native Americans,” Media Mouse, June 3, 2008, https://mediamousearchive.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/west-michigan-legislator-wants/
cxlvi Lydens, 10.