Museum of Ojibwa Culture – St. Ignace, Michigan
Marquette Mission Park and Museum of Ojibwa Culture – St. Ignace, Michigan
by Mikel B. Classen
In Sainte Ignace, Michigan towards the east end of town, 500 North State Street at the north end of the boardwalk, across from the docks where the boats depart for daily runs to Mackinac Island is a small overlooked museum that displays and explains an aspect of Great Lakes life that predates all else, that of the Native American. It is located at the grave site of Father Marquette, now called the Father Marquette Mission Park, where he first established his mission for a village of displaced Hurons, the natives that he discovered living there.
The Mackinaw Straits area of Michigan is one of the most historically significant in the United States and draws nearly a million visitors a year. It is where history still remains standing and is continuously reenacted at both Mackinaw City in Fort Michilimackinac and of course on Mackinaw Island at Fort Mackinac which still stands there. European history began here in the late 1600’s with the coming of Jesuit explorer Jacques Marquette making it one of the first places to be settled in the United States. St. Ignace holds the key to the oldest of that history.
All of this makes for a unique look into the past at the impact of early settlement and military affairs between the British and the French for control of the Great Lakes, but there were Native Americans in the area for about 10,000 years. Long before any European ever dreamed of a “New World”, there was an established civilization and way of life.
It was a lifestyle that knew every aspect of the natural surroundings and lived in harmony with it. The people that developed it were the Ojibwa, the natives of this region, who allowed the Europeans to co-exist with them when they finally arrived.
The museum is located at the Marquette Mission Park and is called the Museum of Ojibwa Culture. If a visitor to the area really wants to understand all of the area’s history, not just the European aspects when the British and the French came, they need to experience this museum. The displays are archaeological finds as well as films, videos and models.
This location has been considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the Midwest. It is also the oldest. The digs have uncovered thousands of artifacts, the outlines of several longhouses, and the remains of fire hearths, storage pits, and refuse areas.
Upon entering the museum, which is formerly St. Ignace’s oldest church, you are greeted with eight foot photo enlargements of natives and a large partition display which explains the original legend of the Ojibwa migration which led them to the area. They are the original people of the Upper Great Lakes region whose ancestors were scattered through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Throughout the museum, the visitor finds displays of many of the artifacts dug up on the site. Interpretive signs explain what they are, their use, and the spiritual meanings behind their use. Native Americans were highly spiritual people and their daily lives and tools all had meaning and purpose. They had adapted amazingly to the harshness of the Great Lakes environment.
There is a reproduced hut inside the museum that has a short video explaining the ways and family structure of the Ojibwa. This is a highly detailed display and the video ties everything together. It has interviews with area natives and not only speaks of life historically, but comments on where Native Americans are now.
Then towards the end of the displays the impact of the coming of the missionaries is documented with more artifacts and interpretation. There is discussion here about how their culture and way of life was irreversibly changed by the imposition of Christianity.
This museum is wonderfully done and surprisingly complete for its small size. For the future, an outdoor exhibit is planned. There is a standing longhouse on site and development plans include partial reconstruction of the Huron village. More extensive exhibits on the Hurons and Odawa Natives on how they adapted with their displacement from their homeland by the Iroquois in the 1640’s. They had established several villages in the upper Great Lakes area.
The cost for this museum is small, a couple dollars the high price, There are discounts for elementary students and tour groups. There is a family ticket rate as well. The museum is open from Memorial Day to late October.
For further interest, there is a Native American gift shop that feature traditional Ojibwa arts, crafts, and literature. These are made by authentic artisans and the work is magnificent as well as educational. Many of the drawings and books are inspired by native legend and tales. This should be a stop after visiting the museum.
When visiting or travelling through the Straits of Mackinac and St. Ignace, make sure to take some time to visit the Marquette Mission Park and Museum of Ojibwa Culture. Your understanding of the significance of the Straits area and the Upper Peninsula as a whole will never be complete without it.
For more information you can visit their website at: https://stignace.com/attractions/museum-of-ojibwa-culture-gift-shop/#:~:text=A%20National%20Historic%20Landmark%2C%20the,through%20innovative%20exhibits%20and%20continuous
Content copyright . Mikel Classen. All rights reserved.