Land Blessing & Community Assessment

the backs of several people walking down a path into a wooded area
a small daisy growing amid green grass
A daisy grows up on the land, amid various grasses after mowing ceased in the space. Spring, 2022. (photo Andrea Knutson)

Gidinawemaaganinaanig Endazhigiyang came to the inter-tribal Indigenous community of Southeast Michigan after over two-hundred years in settler colonial possession. The land had been cleared by the university and then backfilled with soil from other sites of construction around campus. Situated behind a parking lot, but nestled against the Western Biological Preserve, the land had been disturbed by modern reconstruction projects, and then left fallow. Now a mound rises to provide a view down into the Preserve and mist hangs low over its curve on early mornings. The first thing that the Native American Advisory Committee (NAAC) requested was that campus facilities stop mowing the space. It was being mowed as though it were a golf course, and we wanted to give the land the chance to heal and reveal itself to us. It became greener with every week that passed and soon a couple of daisies appeared among other native vegetation. Having been given the opportunity to grow flowers and grasses, animal and insect relatives returned as well. We sat out on the land among butterflies and bees, deer, woodchuck, and possum. We see scat and footprints amongst the flowers and snow and know that the land is beginning to thrive again. 

To return this land back to the Indigenous community in the right way, we celebrated with a Land Blessing Ceremony on June 28, 2022. Community Leaders Wayne Cleland (Black River, Swan Creek Ojibwe) and Rosebud Bear Schneider (Ojibwe) led attendees in a pipe and water ceremony, respectively, welcoming this Land back to herself and promising to listen to and serve her needs. The OU community gathered with the inter-tribal community of the area, coming together on this Land for the first time in a peaceful way. 

Rosebud Bear Schneider (Ojibwe), and other community members walk the path from the Land into the campus Bio Preserve during the community assessment. June 28, 2022.

Arranging for this ceremony meant working with the community to find a good date for our leaders, for the weather, and for what felt right. Though campus events tend to run September to April, a ceremony in the summer gave us long days, warm weather for outside gathering, and an opportunity to see the Land flourishing with vegetation for the community assessment. We arranged approval with the campus fire marshall to have a sacred fire, using a portable fire-pit. We put up a temporary awning for shade, especially for our elders, and everyone brought camp chairs and feast bundles. The Provost’s office and Amy Banes-Berceli brought out folding tables, provided water, and collected recycling. Everyone brought a dish to share (potluck). We feasted on Native dishes: wild rice, three-sister salad, strawberries, and foods from students’ and other campus members’ homelands: a rich Swedish pie, tabouli, tacos, and meat kebabs. Community members brought tupperware to carry leftovers home—no opportunity for nourishment was wasted.

After the feast, we began what we called our Community Assessment. In action this was walking the Land together with our community members, taking note of the plant and animal relatives there and those nearby connected to the Preserve – and how all of these would and could influence one another as the seasons circle round. We observed the direction of the sun and wind, talked about when and how the seasons come to our region, and our leaders listened to the Land. Together we began to dream: what could we see on this Land one day? Rosebud saw water caught off the roof of the tool-storage shed for watering the gitigan (garden). She saw three sisters and medicines growing along the center of the Land. Antonio saw an orchard, fruiting Native trees on the back slope, blending into the forest below. Wayne saw his tribe gathering here for meetings, sitting in a circle. Other community members saw a place for trading goods and a fire pit for cooking and telling stories around. We saw open space to build hide-tanning frames and kettles for processing corn. We saw tables filled with feasts, with knowledge-keepers sharing basket-weaving and beading skills. We saw Wayne and others dancing on the top of the hill. We knew we were moving in a good way. We saw a place to put down tobacco (aseema), to pray, to forage, to gather and just be—something that Urban Native folks often have no land base to support.

Jacob Schott (Mohawk), Rosebud Bear Schneider (Ojibwe), Antonio Cosme (Coahuiltecan), and Andrea Knutson look out over Galloway Creek during the community assessment

The Native American Advisory Committee has been working to meet the needs of the Community Assessment. Large grandfathers (boulders) were rescued from construction sites around campus and brought to the land. They now stand in a quiet circle for gatherings. The community requested cedar trees for the area around the future pavilion. Our Facilities crew, led by Doug LaLone planted 10 Eastern Cedars along the Northeast edge of the Land on November 10, 2022, with more planned for planting this spring. We’re raising funds for the purchase of Paw-Paw trees that will make up the orchard. And we have created a 10-year vision plan using the community assessment goals to work with the University’s development team to begin fundraising for the long-term goals of the site. 

The Grandfathers circle on the land, Spring 2022 (photo by Andrea Knutson)

Our immediate fundraising supports the following work:

  1. Purchasing a shed (locally built) for the Land. There we can store planting and harvesting tools and cooking tools. We can hang harvests to dry/cure, and store medicines, and keep seeds for planting season. We can put away fire-wood and use its roof to create a rain-water collection system;  
  2. Building a pavilion for shade and weather protection. This will enable us to gather in all weathers and protect elders and children when we gather. It will give us a place to locate tables for feasts, trading, and knowledge-sharing lessons (beading, weaving, sewing, etc.)
  3. Purchasing Michigan-Native Paw-Paw trees for the orchard;
  4. Purchasing the tools we’ll need to fill the shed and funding knowledge-keepers to lead workshops on Indigenous tool-making;
  5. Pay stipends for Indigenous community members’ contributions to the NAAC, the Land, and for their consulting with the University about the Land. This includes: educational outreach done on campus, supporting Indigenous land-based initiatives in the community (e.g., the Detroit Sugarbush Project), and setting up a permanent fund to support stipends for Indigenous community members serving on the NAAC;
  6. Funding visits from Indigenous experts to support our community and the land. In the Spring (May 2023) we are using the first funds raised for this initiative to bring Indigenous ethnobotanists Linda and Luke Black Elk (Lakota) to the Land. They will lead a plant-walk with the community on the Land and into the nature preserve and also use their time in SE Michigan to trade, forage, and gather medicines for their food sovereignty work in North Dakota and neighboring communities.
Andrea Knutson, Emily Spunaugle, and Megan Peiser (Choctaw) in the Bio Preserve during the community assessment. June 28, 2022

What does it mean to steward a space on a college campus whose purpose is to support Tribal sovereignty and perpetuate ancestral and cultural lifeways? Without our Indigenous students, faculty, and staff – and our Native collaborators – it wouldn’t be possible. “Multiculturalism” has thrived across higher ed without attention to the needs, histories, and priorities of Native peoples. So, this is not multiculturalism.

The land signals Oakland University’s desire to address its colonial past and meet the needs of its Native students, faculty, staff, and the broader inter-Tribal community of SE Michigan. But to actually meet these needs will require efforts at communication, cooperation, trust, and a sharing of power that this university has not yet imagined.

The grandfathers gathering circle on the land, Winter 2023 (photo: Andrea Knutson for the @gitiganOU Instagram account)

Published by Megan Peiser

Megan Peiser is an enrolled citizen of Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She is assistant professor of Literature at Oakland University, a stweard of a garden in Michigan, a bibliographer, and a wrangler of two dachshunds.

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