Skip to content

Downtown Grand Rapids Inc and the perpetuation of a Settler Colonial narrative

May 3, 2023

On Tuesday, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. posted a message, which not only needs to be seriously scrutinized, it deserves a retraction and an apology. Here is that message, stupid emojis not included:

Happy Birthday, Grand Rapids! 

Did you know that our city was officially founded on this day in 1850?  Here’s to many more years of progress and growth!

Scroll for a quick history on the start of GR 

2000+ years ago: Indigenous Americans settled.

Early 1800s: The first white settlers arrived.

1831: Louis Campau bought what is now the entire downtown business district of GR for $90.

1850: Grand Rapids became a city. 

The comment about wanting many more years of progress and growth is the first thing that should be challenged. When using the word progress, if they mean moving forward in the areas of social, political and economic rights, then most of the history of Grand Rapids has not been equitable for the majority of the population. Grand Rapids still has the largest wealth gap of any city in Michigan, but more importantly, whatever social progress that has been made has been the result of organized groups and social movements. Labor unions, the Black Freedom Struggle, the LGBTQ movement, the Environmental Justice movement, the Immigrants Justice movement, various feminist movements, etc, have all brought about significant progress/change, but always against systems of power and oppression in the community that did not support them.

Early 1800s: The first white settlers arrived. Now, I know that this statement comes right after 2000+ years ago: Indigenous Americans settled. However, Euro-Americans did not simply arrive, they used a variety of tactics to displace indigenous people and then appropriate their land. 

Grand Rapids was founded on Settler Colonialism

As a foundational framework, it is vital that we come to terms with the fact that Grand Rapids, like virtually all US cities were founded on what Native scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz calls Settler Colonialism. Settler Colonialism in West Michigan is the result of a larger White Supremacist strategy that included legal means (treaties), forced relocation, spiritual violence (role of churches) and cultural imperialism, most radically seen with the policy of putting Native children in boarding schools with the goal of, “Killing the Indian, Saving the Man.”

We know that hundreds of Native children from the Three Fires Nations were taken and put into boarding schools by settler colonialists, many of which were run by christians. In these instances Native children were denied the right to speak their own languages and practice their own spiritual traditions. Most of the removal of Native children from their communities happened in the later part of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century.

However, on the matter of christian missions attempting to make converts of Native communities in the 1820s and 1830s along the Grand River, it is less clear on whether or not this could be defined as a form of genocide. How much free will did Native people have on choosing another religion? Was the adoption of christian beliefs a form of assimilation into the dominant culture and was it tied to larger socio-economic issues like food and land?

It should come as no surprise that right after the 1821 Treaty of Chicago was signed, the first christian missions came to what is now West Michigan. The Baptist Church established a mission in 1824, under the leadership of Isaac McCoy, and Catholic missions were begun in 1833 by Fr. Frederic Baraga.

One of the things that lured missionaries to the area after the signing of the Treaty of Chicago, was a provision in the treaty which allowed funds for people to work as teachers of blacksmiths amongst the Native people along the Grand River. The government treaty called this, the “civilization fund,” a phrase that underscores the settler colonial mentality.

Isaac McCoy first arrived in 1823, only to discover: “Many Odawa were drinking and few responded to his call for a council. After some inquiries McCoy learned that the majority regarded the 1821 treaty as fraudulent and viewed his visit as an attempt to trick them into ratifying it.” (pg. 7, from Gathered at the River: Grand Rapids, Michigan and Its People of Faith)

Such a statement reflects not only that the Native people along the Grand were not in support of the government imposed treaty, but that many Natives were negatively impacted by alcohol. Alcohol was introduced by French fur traders, particularly Louis Campau and should be seen as another tool used by settler colonialism to control Native people.

Rev. McCoy, however, was not deterred from his initial observations and continued to use all means at his disposal to “win over” the hearts and minds of Native people. In 1826, McCoy set up the Thomas Mission on the westside of the Grand River. McCoy’s greatest contribution during his time along the Grand River was his relationship with Native leader Nawequageezhig, whom the white settlers called Noonday.

Noonday was one of the few Native leaders who signed the 1821 Treaty of Chicago and was viewed by many as a traitor or collaborator with the settler colonialists. Noonday went as far as to be baptized by McCoy’s successor, Rev. Leonard Slater in the summer of 1827. Another Native leader in the area, Kewwaycooshcum, also known as Blackskin, did not sign the 1821 treaty, but did develop a relationship with the catholics through his connection to Campau. It is hard to know from the limited documentation of that time, whether or not the Native people were using the tensions between the various christian factions to their benefit or if the christian were using Native compliance with the government as a means to an end. One gets a sense of the christian rivalry in a comment from Fr. Baraga, who said, “Mary, to who it is given to root out all heresies of the world……to destroy the false [Protestant} teachings with which some of the poor Indians were already infected, and suffer on His gospel to reign everywhere.” (pg. 12, from Gathered at the River: Grand Rapids, Michigan and Its People of Faith)

However, whatever tensions existed, they were most useful in pushing Native people out of the area as more white settlers colonialists came to the area. This increase in settler colonialists, along with greater desire for land and settler colonial expansion, resulted in a new treaty being drawn up, the Treaty of Washington in 1836. This treaty turned over an additional 13,837,207 acres of land to settler colonialism’s expansionist desires.

It seems that all along, the goal with relations of Native people along the Grand were to take the rest of their land. Whether or not there was direct complicity with the early christian missions to this land takeover is not relevant, the fact remains that they did nothing to resist such an effort.

The end of chapter one from Gathered at the River: Grand Rapids, Michigan and Its People of Faith, states of the fate of Native people in West Michigan:

Keeping title proved difficult, however, as fraud, inexperience, and incompatibility of family farming with tribal tradition took their toll.

It indeed took its toll, but the authors of Gathered at the River do not call it land theft or settler colonialism or even acknowledge the role that early missions played here in the ongoing genocidal policies of US expansionism. The plight of Native people is not addressed in the rest of the book, which simply goes on to celebrate the history of christian churches in Grand Rapids. However, it seems apparent to this writer that the history of christianity in West Michigan is founded on genocide and settler colonialism.

1831: Louis Campau bought what is now the entire downtown business district of GR for $90. This point by DGRI is totally misleading, since it doesn’t say from whom did Campau buy the land. It is a popular notion that Louis Campau and Lucias Lyons are seen as the founding fathers of Grand Rapids, but the reality is, they are the founding fathers of Settler Colonialism in what was to become known as Grand Rapids.

The last last point that DGRI makes is, 1850: Grand Rapids became a city. While it is true that Grand Rapids officially became a city in 1850, those involved in making that happen were only able to do so because of the displacement of Indigenous people and the theft of their land. Grand Rapids only became a reality because of the genocidal policies that were implemented by the early Settler Colonialists. Until Grand Rapids honestly confront this history it will never be a community that is rooted is equity and justice. 

None of the bullet points that DGRI made on their Facebook page about the founding of Grand Rapids should surprise people, especially those who actually pay attention to what they do. Their mission statement says, “Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) is the organization responsible for city building and place-management in the urban core of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Established in 2013, DGRI serves as the singular management entity for the combined operations of the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Improvement District, and the Monroe North Tax Increment Finance Authority.” DGRI is all about furthering the interests of those who control large sections of land and property in the downtown area, which includes members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, other businesses and members of the professional class, which are the dominant class of people now living in downtown GR. So it would stand to reason that DGRI would reflect a history of Grand Rapids that is all warm and fuzzy, one that avoids talk of Settler Colonialism and genocide.

For a counter-narrative to the early history of what is called Grand Rapids, see my new book, A People’s History of Grand Rapids.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: