More than 2,000 years ago, Native Americans associated with the Hopewell culture occupied the Grand River Valley. The Hopewell were mound builders, constructing great geometric earthworks that served as enclosures, burial places, defensive structures, and religious sites.
Grand Rapids is home to the most important and best-preserved Hopewell mounds in the western Great Lakes region. Our Norton Mound Group, located on the banks of the Grand River southwest of downtown, is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Around 1700 A.D., people of the Three Fires - the Ottawa (Odawa), Chippewa (Ojibwa), and Potawatomi Indians - established villages in and around what is now Grand Rapids. Nineteen Ottawa chiefs once governed the lands along the Grand River from Grand Haven to Lansing, and their biggest village and main gathering place stood at the site of present-day downtown.
The people of the Three Fires called themselves the Anishinabek - "The Original People." Accomplished hunters, fishers, gatherers, and farmers, found everything they needed to thrive in the abundant natural resources of this region.
That life changed in 1821, when the Treaty of Chicago gave the United States control of the land south of the Grand River. The area was opened up to settlement, and Native Americans were increasingly displaced, and often forcibly relocated to make room for new arrivals.
As of the 2010 census, just over 1,300 people of Native American ancestry lived in Grand Rapids. Most are members of or trace their lineage back to the Three Fires nations. While the community is not large, the members work hard to keep the spirit and traditions of their forefathers alive.
- "Anishinabek: The People of This Place" at Grand Rapids Public Museum presents rare and fascinating artifacts handed down through generations of the original Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Chippewa people of West Michigan.
- Ah-Nab-Awen Park in downtown Grand Rapids contains a bronze marker commemorating the people of the Three Fires, and three large, grassy mounds symbolizing the Hopewell Indian mounds.
- The Grand Valley American Indian Lodge has hosted a traditional pow wow on the banks of the Grand River for more than 50 Labor Day weekends - and counting.
- Every June, the Three Fires Traditional Pow Wow celebrates the unity of the Three Fires people through traditional dancing, music, crafts, and more.
- A bronze statue of Nawquageezhig, aka Chief Noonday, greets visitors to the downtown campus of Grand Valley State University - just as this Potawatomi chief welcomed early traders and settlers to the area.
- Longtime Grand Rapids activist Levi Rickert launched the online Native News Network in 2011, offering stories about Native Americans and analysis of mainstream issues from a Native-American perspective.