About the Project

Kitty Cats

The Gi-gikinomaage-min (“We are all teachers”) Project was launched in November 2014 with the aim of documenting the urban Native American experience in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Grand Rapids’ Native American community grew dramatically in the last half of the 20th century as a result of a little-known federal program that still impacts American Indian lives today. Called the Urban Relocation Program, that program created one of the largest mass movements of Indians in American history. The full scope of this massive social experiment and its impact on multiple generations of Native Americans remains largely undocumented and unexplored.

Launched with support from a Michigan Humanities Council Planning Grant, GVSU project team members spent more than six months intentionally designing this goal, work plan, and decision-making process for this collaboration in consultation with local Native American community members and several national organizations. Specific efforts have included two community dialogues held at the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Northern Health Center, conversations with numerous tribes, Native American communities, cultural heritage organizations, and members of the Native American Archives Roundtable. The project began collecting its first oral histories in February 2015. We will continue to collect oral histories through 2019.

Team members also conducted a survey of existing materials in public repositories related to the urban Native American experience in West Michigan. Facilitating access to those materials and working with those repositories to ensure those materials are well preserved are among the aims of this effort. Equally important, this effort strives to model ways that a non-tribal institution like GVSU can work with Native Americans to preserve, tell, and educate others about their history in ways that are mutually beneficial, transparent, and that prioritize Native American voices and authorship. The project is directed by an Advisory Council, made up of at least one representative from the partnering units at GVSU and major community stakeholders. The Advisory Council is chaired by Simone Jonaitis, of the Little River Band of Ottawas, and its Vice-Chair is Levi Rickert, of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Kimberly McKee, Director of the Kutsche Office of Local History, serves as the Project Director, an ex-officio member of the Advisory Council. Ms. Belinda Bardwell (LTBB), a graduate student in the GVSU Master's of Public Administration Program, serves as project coordinator.

Recent events include the traveling exhibition, “Walking Beyond Our Ancestors Footsteps: An Urban Native American Experience” that explored key chapters in West Michigan’s Native American history and featured contemporary artwork by local Native American artists. The exhibit opened in November 2015 in GVSU’s Mary Idema Pew Library and was on display in the Grand Rapids Public Library (January 2016) and the Grand Rapids Public Museum (April-June 2016).  A public oral history demonstration was also held at the Grand Rapids Public Museum in May 2016.

There are many opportunities for interested community members, students, faculty, staff, and others to get involved in this project. Please contact the GVSU Kutsche Office of Local History for more information. 


Funded In Part By the Michigan Humanities Council


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Page last modified May 16, 2018