For about 185 years, beginning with Hanover Square as our first public park, the municipality of Ann Arbor has gathered land into the public domain to form what is now the City’s park system. Over time, the City has transitioned over 2,200 acres of land within Ann Arbor from private property to public parks and nature areas. This has taken place amid an overarching system of private property ownership. Communal holding of the land, however, dates back much further, to long before the private property ownership system entered the scene. Communal holding of land stands as an inherent part of indigenous people’s relationship with the land.
Ann Arbor parks are situated within a network of historical and contemporary relationships with Indigenous Native American Peoples, and some parks are on or near connecting Native American travel routes. Our parks sit on the ancestral and traditional homelands of several Indigenous Native American Peoples. Precisely who is clouded by many factors. Those factors include colonizers and settlers not understanding well the broad and overlapping nature of traditional native territories, treaties not always accurately reflecting the homelands of the various Indigenous Native American nations and tribes, and repeated forced migrations of Indigenous Native American peoples far from their homelands. With the signing of the Treaty of Detroit of 1807 , the Ottoway (Ottawa/Odawa), the Chippeway (Chippewa/Ojibwe), and the Pottawatamie (Pattawatima/Bodewadmi/Potawatomi) -- who are all Anishinaabe -- and the Wyandotte (Wyandot) formally ceded (relinquished) their lands in southeast Michigan and Northwest Ohio. Ann Arbor, however, might not have been within the homelands of all of these Native American Nations. Pinpointing Ann Arbor in an Indigenous-led mapping of traditional native territories (https://native-land.ca) shows it to be the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Bodewadmi (Potawatomi), Peoria, and Meskwahki asa hia (Fox); this mapping, however, is a work in process and subject to change should corrections or improvements arise. Though displaced, these Native American Nations are still alive today in one form or another. See, for example, Anishinaabe, Meskawahki asa hia (Fox), Odawa,
Ojibwe, Peoria, Pottawatamie, and Wyandotte.
This is a time of trying to piece together underlying truths in Indigenous history and bring them forward into the light of the present. One aspect consistent across the wide variety of Indigenous Native American Peoples is having as a central part of their worldview that they live in relation to their ancestral and traditional homelands and carry them in their hearts on through the generations. In this sense today they continue to steward their traditional homelands, though separated from them. We feel a responsibility to gather truthful knowledge about Native Peoples and make that available to the public via this platform.
Whether you live, work, study, or recreate in the City of Ann Arbor, we invite you to honor, recognize, and learn about the history, traditions, contributions, worldview, and current lives of Indigenous peoples and nations.
Native American and Indigenous History
If the land were to speak and we were to listen, we would hear stories, so many stories, and stories not just of the present but back into far distant times. The land is holding all our stories of experience. In the deepest layer of soil are stories of indigenous kinship with the land. There the land carries experiences of indigenous peoples in relationships of respectful reciprocity with their homelands, the land being to them a nurturing mother. In the layer built over that, the soil holds stories of private property and land theft through brutal actions and oppressive systems used by Euro-American colonizers and settlers to acquire indigenous peoples’ homelands. In the whisper-thin layer at the surface, where we are today, there are stories of community, holding land in common – as with our parks – remediating toxins in the soil, and striving to restore just and equal balance to the world. In the air and mist are dreams reimagining our relationship with the land as possibilities of the yet-to-be-determined future.
Our focus here is on the land’s deeper-layered stories. We recognize that Ann Arbor and the surrounding countryside are the homelands of indigenous people dating back long before Euro-American settles arrived here. To the best of our knowledge, those indigenous people were Anishinaabeg (including Odawa, Ojibwe, and Boodewandomi), and Wyandot, though Peoria and Meskwahki asa his (Fox) might also have had ties to this part of Michigan.
Despite in the past being brutally removed from their homelands, these tribal nations are alive today in the form of various federally recognized tribes. In addition, indigenous people affiliated with these tribes presently reside in Ann Arbor and surrounding Washtenaw County. Central to indigenous worldview is carrying homelands in their hearts through the generations. In this way, no matter how far from their homelands, indigenous people are connected to them.
It is with gratitude that the City recognizes the care given the land by these indigenous peoples in their respectful communion with the land. In our role as the current stewards of the land we wish for and strive to nurture mutually supportive and respectful relationships with the land and with these indigenous people.
We see the land as alive and responsive to the treatment received. In the early 1900s disregard for the land created dumping sites within what is now Nicholas Arboretum, and the City rescued the land from private property and facilitated nature’s return. More recently, disregard ravaged the land at a construction-staging area within what is now Bluffs Nature Area. There too the City brought the land into the public domain and has been supporting a return of nature, and the land has responded with habitat for wildlife and a place for human beings seeking time in nature.
These happenings show the regenerative power of the land when given nurturing human support. And the land, in return, gives us solace, recreation, beauty, and a sense of belonging, among other gifts. As public parkland, the land is held in common, with access freely available to all. We recognize, however, that we are just beginning to catch a glimmer of the wisdom the indigenous people cultivated in respectful reciprocal relationship with the land.
It is not easy for us to properly cover Native American and Indigenous history for many reasons. This page is a beginning effort and very much a work in progress. We are actively seeking partnerships with other institutions, experts, and Indigenous Nations and Tribes to help us appropriately share and recognize this history. We have a platform and a desire to enhance the Ann Arbor's visibility of our Indigenous roots but as non-Indigenous people with little related background, we are not qualified to be the voice of this history. We invite and welcome community contributions to help guide this effort.
City of Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Archives
Within each individual park webpage we have added a park history section to share information and history related to property ownership and the records we have in the City along with other public records. These details provide some insight on how each property came to be treasured public park land here in Ann Arbor. Electronic park files are available to the public in our electronic archive found
here. The collection includes Park Projects, Plansets and Historic files that have been scanned and stored in searchable PDF format. Be sure to read the instructions on searching as using an asterisk before and after the key word is necessary.
Updated January 2022. Email [email protected] for feedback or suggestions.