Embracing history: Manistee tells its whole story

Manistee is retelling its story.

The northern Michigan city this week dedicates a series of sculptures that tell the story of Manistee from its roots, beginning with the Anishnaabek people of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to the arrival of European settlers and beyond.

The sculpture display, Origins Walk, features 20 statuesque silhouettes of the most influential people who made Manistee, along with five sculptural elements and corresponding colonnade with informational plaques that tell the community’s story about water, life, settlement, industry and sustainability.

“It’s critically important to share the stories of Native Americans and their culture when we’re telling the history of Michigan,” says Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, who planned to attend a dedication in Manistee. “I love the fact that (the tribe) is participating in these stories and that we’re telling Manistee’s story not just from the European settlers but to the first people there.”

It’s becoming more common to share the history and stories of Americans beyond those of European descent and that includes Native Americans and African Americans. Native American history is shared at locations such as Mackinac Island and St. Ignace, and Lorenz said he expects that their story will become more prevalent across the state.

“The Native American history and culture is a beautiful one. It’s epic. It needs to be better understood from the past through today,” he said. 

Origins Walk is located at the west end of the city’s Riverwalk near the First Street Beach and follows the existing pathways and sidewalks. 

Plaques on each of the silhouettes highlight a noted resident’s life and the historical and cultural impact they had on Manistee. They include tribal water protectors, tribal leaders and tribal elders, as well as community and civic leaders, entrepreneurs and business leaders, such as T.J. Ramsdell, Louis Sands and Fannie Fowler.

Jonnie Jay Sam II, director of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Historic Preservation Department, welcomed the opportunity to participate in the creation of Origins Walk and the story of Manistee from its roots.

“Our history has been missing except for maybe three paragraphs here and there,” Sam said, noting that often Native American history is often told from the viewpoint of European settlers and not local tribes. “We hope that by presenting our history with the region and the local area it can help people understand why things are the way they are in Manistee. Maybe people will want more information about us and we can get them more information.”

There are about 4,000 members of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, he said, scattered across the region, the Upper Peninsula, and other states. At the time of the Treaty of Washington in 1836, there were reports of about 100 Native Americans at Manistee but that did not include tribe members living along the river upstream. Manistee and the river valley were deemed by the federal government to be the reservation for the tribe.

“This was the area chosen to be our homeland,” he said. “It’s not like we moved here and set things up. We were here. We never left. We were never forced to move anywhere.”

Projects like Origins Walk entwining Native American and European settlement history are not common, he said, adding the tribe maintains a cultural corridor in the nearby Little River Casino Resort, which shares the local Native American story.

Origins Walk under construction.
Origins Walk was spearheaded by the Manistee County Visitors Bureau in collaboration with the Manistee County Historical Museum and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Historic Preservation Department. The Origins Walk and an accompanying 148-page guidebook are the centerpiece of the Manistee Historic Sites Tours project, the most comprehensive tourism venture in Manistee County’s history. 

“Origins Walk is the culmination of a lot of collaboration and teamwork by an incredible amount of people, and a prime example of placemaking, destination marketing and cultural tourism,” said Sammie Lukaskiewicz, executive director of the Manistee County Visitors Bureau. “Everything about this project is intentional -- from the elements to the designs to the placement along the Riverwalk and how they interact with the terrain, the sun, the trees, everything. We are making and displaying history with the Origins Walk, and we hope it will serve as a focal point for visitors, but also a sense of pride, enlightenment and community for all of Manistee to enjoy and learn from.”

The Origins Walk site and interpretive experience was conceived and designed by the creative teams at Rightside Design Group in Manistee and Engine Creative in Ludington. The silhouettes and the sculptural elements were manufactured and laser cut by Alro Steel in Grand Rapids and welded by Epic Manufacturing in Ludington. In all, about 8,000 tons of steel will be used to create the project.

The shadows cast by the sun on the steel silhouettes and the arcs and the placement of the dune grass and stones among the trees in the natural setting of the beach near the Riverwalk is an intentional part of the Origins Walk. Each piece is meant to provide an inclusive history, from the early geographical formation to the area as it exists today.

“Manistee’s abundant history is deserving of a unique showcase, and the Origins Walk as well as the local history tour booklet are wonderful ways to educate the public and remind us all about our community-minded ancestors that formed the area that we know today,” said Mark Fedder, executive director of the Manistee County Historical Museum. 

The project was supported by a $72,500 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and $77,500 from the Manistee visitors bureau.

The accompanying interactive guidebook showcases Manistee’s history with more than 100 sites along eight themed tours. The booklet includes stories about the founders and influential people of the Origins Walk as well as others.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.