On Which We Walk: Native American Fall Celebrations

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Before Thanksgiving became a nationally celebrated holiday, there was already a rich culture of traditions existing in the United States. Native Americans were already practicing and spreading their culture throughout North America. While most Americans were taught about the history of Thanksgiving, they often don’t know about the original holidays that began here. In Lansing, those native celebrations have been carried on for centuries. 

To understand these traditions, we have to know where they started. Eva Menefee, a Native American professor at Lansing Community College, detailed the history of Native American culture and traditions passed down. “There were many different bands that lived in this area, most of them came from Canada. When the car industry picked up here, a lot of them moved to Detroit from the south and Lansing from the north,” Menefee said. 

Of course, there were tribes already native to Michigan. Menefee knew that the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes frequented Lansing. “They moved from summer homes to winter homes after the growing season,” Menefee continued, “And during the winter, that’s when they would share their stories and have Ghost Fest.”

Ghost Fest is the celebration of those that have passed on. Menefee’s husband, Robin, explained that, “Ghost Fest is always on the first Saturday of November and it’s a celebration of the people that have passed on within that year, but also for all ancestors. There is a feast and a bonfire to honor them.” 

There are certain activities that go along with Ghost Fest. Joe Webster, one of the tribal elders attending a Michigan State University Native American conference this fall, described a part of Ghost Fest called spirit dishes. 

“A spirit dish is made in honor of the ancestor or person who has passed on,” Webster explained.

Menefee described spirit dishes further saying the ritual is performed to honor the dead.

“The spirit dish is a favorite meal of the deceased person. It is then put into the fire,” she said.

Ghost Fest continues to be celebrated today with some modern twists. Menefee stated that she invites non-natives as well: “It’s kind of like an open house.” Everyone has lost someone. By bringing people together for this celebration, a sense of community is created from that can cause isolation.

While there are different celebrations for different tribes, Ghost Fest is commonly found in Michigan. Among the different tribes there is also a change in the name of the celebration. The Ottawa (Odawa) Tribe call it “Ghost Supper,” for example. While the name changes, the meaning remains the same. 

Regarding the Lansing community, Menefee said it has been difficult to educate the public about the history Native Americans share with our state, despite many opportunities. The Nokomis Learning Center and the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians Interpretive Center, which features a learning center and library open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, are both within 20 minutes of East Lansing,  The Nokomis Native American Cultural Center is open for tours and free walk-ins year-round.

Native American cultural traditions stretch far wider than many Americans have been taught. While these traditions continue, they often go unnoticed by most people in the city. Menefee wants to help spread awareness of these traditions. While there are some MSU clubs that focus on Native American culture, there is an overall lack of campus knowledge and engagement. 

“We want to have more events,” said Menefee. “MSU has its Native American club (the Native American Indigenous Student Organization) that does lots of events, LCC has a club, we have a youth club, the Indigenous Youth Empowerment Program through Lansing Public Schools (has a club) too.” 

Through education and outreach, Menefee and groups such as these work to bring Native American cultures and traditions into the public eye.