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Look about you. What ideas do you see inscribed on the land of Michigan?

New York Public Library Digital Collections
A map of "New France" drawn in 1656

We are of the dirt.

That’s what Willie Jennings believes.

“My mother was a gardener,” he says. Each spring, as she got her garden ready, she would spray water on the dirt, and tell him to plunge his hands deep into the wet soil.

“And she would turn to me and say, ‘You feel that? You feel that son? That’s life.'”

willie jennings
Credit Courtesy of Willie Jennings
Willie Jennings is an associate professor at Yale Divinity School.

Jennings grew up on the Southeast side of Grand Rapids. Now, he’s a scholar at Yale Divinity School, and he talks about dirt a lot. He says dirt is important to understanding each other as people because dirt is what joins us in a place. We may have differences, but we have the land in common.

And the land tells our story, if we stop to look.

You know the state motto: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you. Forget about what you’re seeking for a minute. Just, wherever you are, look about you.

If you’re in a building, look at the walls. If there’s a window, look at the trees, the grass, the parking lot. The land.

Just about everywhere in Michigan, even out in nature, you can see how humans have changed things.

“If you were here in 1817, Michigan would have seemed an entirely indigenous space."

You can see our ideas inscribed on the land.

The most noticeable idea that shapes our land is the idea of property. We hardly stop to think about property. It just is.  

Sure, a person can own a piece of the earth. Just imagine a line. Imagine a rectangle sitting there. Everything inside that rectangle is yours. Take that dirt, do whatever you want. It’s yours.

But that idea came from somewhere. It has a history. All the ideas we live with about our land, they came from somewhere.

And a lot of them haven’t even been here that long.

“If you were here in 1817, Michigan would have seemed an entirely indigenous space,” says Michael Witgen, a historian at the University of Michigan. “It was dominated by native peoples who lived in Detroit, Mackinac, in the Grand River valley, in the Upper Peninsula. And anywhere you went, you would have encountered native people, and it would have been native people continuing to live as their ancestors had done.”

Witgen is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and author of An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America.

He’s written about the history of native people in the Great Lakes in the time after Europeans arrived

A lot has happened in that period, but some people missed it in history class.

“The first thing they miss is that we’re still here, that there’s still significant native population in the state of Michigan,” Witgen says. “There are 14 reservations, 14 communities. So that’s the biggest thing.”

But that's not the only thing they miss.

“The next biggest thing,” he says, “is the kind of misconception that when the territory that’s now Michigan gets claimed by New France, that it’s suddenly, actually, a part of New France. That it’s dominated and controlled by Europeans, when in fact it’s still entirely a native space.”

There just weren’t that many Europeans for hundreds of years. They had little villages in Detroit, in Fort Mackinac and Sault Ste. Marie, and not much else.

They saw the rest of the land of Michigan as unsettled wilderness.

Unsettled even though there were thousands of people on it. People with political systems, economic systems, and agricultural systems.

“But from a European standpoint,” Witgen says, “because it’s not been carved up into individual farms that are fenced in and have built structures. For them, that means it’s a wilderness.”

A wilderness to be taken and tamed.

Credit Wikimedia Commons / http://bit.ly/1xMszCg
A painting of Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette preaching to the Indigenous people of Michigan.

We all know that this happened. The Europeans came in; they did what they did.

But why did they see the land that way, and why did they see Native people that way?

Those ideas came from somewhere.

Willie Jennings says a big part of those ideas came from the Europeans’ distorted understanding of the Bible.

“They came believing that they were the people of God, having replaced Israel as the people of God,” he says. “And so that God’s hopes for the world rested on them.”

“And what began as really harmless designation soon took on a world of harm as they did one crucial thing with their life in the new world: They seized land.”

It was also important who they believed they were, and who other people were not. They were the white people.

And that combination, Christianity plus whiteness, shaped the New World, Jennings says. He’s studied and written about this history a lot. He wrote a book called The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.

Jennings says whiteness should not be thought of as a person or as group of people.

“No one is born white,” he says. It’s an idea, “a way of being in the world.”

At first, it was a harmless way for the Europeans to designate people in a land where not everyone looked the same.

“And what began as really harmless designation,” he says, “soon took on a world of harm as they did one crucial thing with their life in the new world: They seized land.”

And why did they seize it? Because they believed it was already theirs, as white people, the chosen people of God.

“And so they helped to create a new vision of the world as not only a possession given by God, but as infinitely possessable,” he says, “i.e. individual, private ownership of the world itself.”

Private ownership of land. That idea we don’t always think about, but that shapes our entire experience of the land.

Jennings says it even shaped the history of why so many Europeans came to the Americas. Because here it was possible for common people to be landowners, not just tenants of the aristocracy.

That hope of land ownership is what brought many Europeans to the shores of the New World.

You can see why it would be so tempting.  

“Imagine coming to Michigan,” Jennings says. “You’re staring out at the majesty of Lake Superior. And the beauty of the trees and the food and the animals. And of course there are people. And someone whispers to you, ‘All this is yours. All this is yours.’”

Tomorrow, the series continues with the story of the Supreme Court case that set the precedent for indigenous property rights in the U.S.

(Subscribe to the Stateside podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or with this RSS link)

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.