Do Natives Have a Future in Detroit?

Kyle T. Mays

Detroit is a cold, stark place. And depending on where you are in the city, it can be gloomy even on the brightest spring or summer days. The narratives written and said about Detroit probably impact my vision of the city as well. A former arsenal of democracy, it is now engrossed in urban decline narratives, a shrinking city (in infrastructure and population), and a place of extreme inner-city poverty; it is a dangerous place. For others, especially the wealthy, it is a frontier land of possibility¾a place full of potential for creative artists and hipsters. Dan Gilbert, Owner of Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers is such an example, using rhetoric like Detroit 2.0 to bring young hipsters into the city. Yet, others, like L. Brooks Patterson, see it as a dangerous place.

On January 27, 2014, Paige Williams, a writer for The New Yorker published a scathing article of long time Oakland County Chief Executive, L. Brooks Patterson. Titled, “Drop Dead Detroit!” the article was a critique of Patterson, a major critic of all things Detroit, even as he sits as an outsider in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States—vanilla suburbs surrounding a chocolate city. Williams accused Patterson of racism. It is easy to see why. Patterson, speaking about Detroit stated, “Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive. Therefore, I’m called a Detroit basher. The truth hurts, you know? Tough shit.” He even told his daughters not to get gas there. If kicking a struggling city down, whose residents happen to be majority Black was not enough, he brought Native Americans into the conversation. When asked how he would fix the financial problems of Detroit, he said, “what we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.” Apparently these comments happened long ago, though the place of Indian people in the white imagination suggests that Patterson could have made this statement just as easily in 2014 as in 1974.

Black Detroiters protested Patterson’s racist characterization of Detroit. And so did the Native community. As a result, on February 11, 2014, L. Brooks Patterson submitted a letter to Matthew Wesaw (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi), former Chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and currently Executive Director, Department of Civil Rights in Michigan, apologizing for his remarks. In the letter, Patterson offered an apology¾though the sincerity and taste of it is questionable. Following a meeting with Wesaw, Patterson wrote in the letter, “I was unaware of the entire sordid episode of Native Americans facing extinction through the imposition of disease filled blankets.” He further wrote, “I apologize for my ignorance of history and I want you to know that it was never my intent to disrespect Native Americans.”

Regardless of his lack of historical knowledge, the making of Detroit into an Indian reservation is interesting¾and distasteful. But Patterson is not the only one who knows very little about Indigenous Detroit. My interest in bringing up Patterson’s disparaging comments is to point toward how Native Americans have been erased from the official histories of Detroit, so much so that government officials can make reference to them, and know nothing about their historical or contemporary presence in the Motor City. Even Detroit’s Black population has tended to ignore Native Americans. Though not rooted in the malicious racism like that of Patterson, they largely do not acknowledge a Native presence whatsoever.

I spent the 2013-2014 academic year conducting research in the Motor City. I lived in Detroit at the historical moment when Detroit became the largest metropolitan place in the United States to declare bankruptcy¾a result of larger processes of deindustrialization, globalization, and institutional racism in the postwar era, so eloquently articulated by historian Thomas Sugrue, but still ignored by mainstream press. (I should note that the City Council, those representing the people of Detroit, never officially declared bankruptcy; think about that).

After the declared bankruptcy, I went to a few community meetings and heard the voices of angry residents. One in particular stood out. An old Black man, about 60-years-old shouted and declared, “Why don’t they bring back, Ford, GM, and Chrysler! They need to bring back the factories so we can have work!” Clearly the product of the booming (Black) middle-class during the postwar period, this elder, like others, was looking for an answer for the nearly 50% unemployment rate that affected the city’s Black residents. He was remembering times past, a moment when you did not necessarily need (formal) education; the automobile factories provided a way out. Those times are long forgotten. If you’re not careful, conducting research there can get you caught up in a whirlwind of negativity. I think I avoided that. I also heard a woman proclaim that the experiences of Detroit’s citizens was that of colonialism. I’m not suggesting that it isn’t some form of subjugation, but let’s face it, we live in a settler colonial society, everyone’s engaging with the processes of colonialism—daily–albeit differently, and Native people often bear the brunt of it¾invisibly to the mainstream, clearly to us.

While I understood that my work can make a contribution to histories of Detroit, to urban history/studies, and urban Indigenous history, I also understand that it is necessary not just historically¾but also for this contemporary moment. I still wonder: how can you have a discussion of urban decline, a conversation reminiscent of 1960s internal colonial commentaries, and not mention the colonialism that persists in the United States, especially that experienced by Native people?

Surely, there is an urban renewal in the city, and a dispossession of Native people. But let’s not be naïve or ignorant and act like Native people no longer exist or even matter in the city. They’re still there, over 7,000 living, breathing, surviving in Wayne County. If there’s an urban renewal, we must go back to the original one, and ask ourselves: why and how have Native people been excluded from these narratives of Detroit’s rapid decline?

Kyle T. Mays (Black/Saginaw Chippewa) earned his Ph.D. in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is working to transform his dissertation titled, Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Racial and Gender Formation in a Modern American City, 1871-2000, into a book. He can be followed on Twitter @mays_kyle.

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