Grand Rapids historian Kevin Finney estimates that indigenous peoples lived in the greater Grand Rapids area for 11,000 years before the first European settlers arrived in 1650.
Little is known about these first peoples – at least until the advent of the Hopewell Indians around 400 B.C. to 400 A.D. 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 one of 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 Grand Rapids, is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Excavation of these and other area mounds revealed much about the lives and culture of the Hopewells – at the terrible cost of disturbing and destroying their sacred sites. Today, the Norton Mound Group is owned and protected by the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which has worked to return mound artifacts to the appropriate tribes.
The Hopewells are considered ancestors to the tribes Michigan knows today: the Ottawa (Odawa), Chippewa (Ojibwa), and Potawatomi (Bodéwadmi) people, collectively known as the People of the Three Fires. Around 1700 A.D., they established villages in and around what is now Grand Rapids. Nineteen Ottawa chiefs once governed the lands along the Grand River (which they called Owashtanong) from Lake Michigan 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, they found everything they needed to thrive in the abundant natural resources of this region.
That life changed when European settlers came to Grand Rapids, first trading with the Anishinabek and eventually seeking to colonize their land. In 1821, 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.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 0.5% of Grand Rapids residents were of American Indian or Alaska Native origin alone in 2023. 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.
- The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is a native sovereign nation based along the Grand River and other waterways in present-day Southwest Michigan, spanning the cities of Grand Rapids and Muskegon.
- The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi is a federally recognized Tribal government with offices in Grand Rapids and Pine, Michigan.
- Anishinaabe Circle is a nonprofit organization promoting the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental welfare of local Native Americans.
- The National Native American Supplier Council is a Grand Rapids-based national nonprofit that aims to provide an equitable opportunity for Native-owned businesses to gain access to a meaningful minority-owned certification.
- The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians host a Homecoming of the Three Fires Pow Wow in Riverside Park each June, featuring traditional Native American music, dancing, art and food.
- The Grand Valley American Indian Lodge Traditional Pow Wow is held every September in Riverside Park – and is celebrating its 63rd year in 2024.
- Grand Valley State University and the Grand Rapids Public Library present a range of programming honoring National Native American Heritage Month every November.
- World of Winter, America’s largest winter festival, traditional includes a Snow Snake competition, showcasing a northern Native American game dating back more than 500 years.