Native people have begun a campaign to change the name of a Detroit eastside neighborhood called “Indian Village” and its community newsletter “Smoke Signals.” Below is a letter delivered to the neighborhood association by a resident, Jared Ten Brink.
By Jared Ten Brink
Hello. My name is Jared Tenbrink. I live at 1075 Burns, where I have lived for around 7 years after living in West Village for 7 years. I am also a member of the Nottawasseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, Red Tail Hawk Clan. In this letter I hope to explain why I think we should change the name of the neighborhood. I do not seek to change minds, for that is something only The Creator can do. Instead, I hope to help others understand where I am coming from and ask that they consider my ideas. I have two main reasons for this, which I will share in this letter.
My first key idea is that history, especially for a historic district, is important. The name, Indian Village, is historically inaccurate. My source for this information is tribal records of historical sites and the Detroit Historical Society. Also, for those who are new, this has never been in dispute. The initial development group, Cook Farm Company Ltd., named the neighborhood Indian Village. The streets are named after one of the board members (Burns) and two Indigenous tribes who were well known but did not live in the area (Seminole and Iroquois, Seneca is outside of our neighborhood but would fall into the same category). There were several Indigenous settlements in the area and several different tribes who lived in Southeast Michigan, including the Huron, Saux, Fox, Odawa, and Potawatomi with others traveling through and engaging in trade. However, there has been no archeological or historical evidence of a settlement at this location. The name leads to confusion and assumptions, with people assuming we are built on a sacred Indigenous site, which we are not. The name also forces us to explain the history of the neighborhood and defend the inaccurate name. As an example, the Detroit Historical Society has to clarify that there is no archeological evidence of an Indigenous settlement here. According to the Detroit Historical Society, “The name Indian Village was reportedly chosen for its sales appeal and not because there was evidence that Native Americans had once lived on the site.” (detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/indian-village) A more accurate name could be, The Village at Cook Farm, as the neighborhood was built on a tract of land that was the Cook Farm, or simply The Village, allowing us to tell our own story.
If there is no evidence of an Indigenous community here, why name the development “Indian Village?” We can first look at the Detroit Historical Society, “sales appeal.” While I do not have direct evidence for this, we can also look at popular culture of the time and create a reasonable theory. And, in exploring the answer to this question, we lead to the second key idea. Beginning at the turn of the 19th to 20th century there was a fascination with Native Americans and the untamed west. Following the Massacre at Wounded Knee many people began to see the Indigenous people of the Americas as extinct and wiped out. That was especially true in the Eastern United States where most of the Native peoples had been forcibly removed in the 1830’s. Those who remained either relocated to Canada, reservations in Northern Michigan, or hid and attempted to blend in. In popular culture this leads to the fictionalizing of the Indigenous peoples. Native Americans were interesting and naming a neighborhood Indian Village gave it a character, something that would make it different than all of the other ribbon farms in the area.
The street names support this idea, as they are not named for a local tribe or for local tribal leaders, but are named after tribes from the east that were well known in popular culture at the time. Over time we see this fictionalizing and appropriation continue. In recent editions of the newsletter historical items were included that showed drawings of fictional Native American “chiefs” and the construction of a false religious artifact, a totem pole. We can even see it in the name of the newsletter, named after a way of communication associated with Indigenous people, one that was describe to me by a neighbor as, “cute.”
Since neighborhood has no connection to a native settlement and was named in order to create “character”, this leads to the second key idea that the name of the neighborhood was created as a marketing tool in order to sell houses. This is not an unreasonable conclusion as Indigenous culture, and other cultures, has been taken and used for marketing purposes by the dominant White culture often. Ferris State University has a powerful collection of examples at their Jim Crow museum. It can be found online at ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/. These materials show the racist nature and damaging practice of using people of color for marketing purposes. It is not unreasonable to make this comparison for the neighborhood name because there is no historical evidence of a Native settlement here instead, the name was used to help market the neighborhood in a booming city.
I believe that we as people are stronger when we work together, when we look at problems from multiple points of view, and when we consider the diverse backgrounds and ideas of many different people. There are many people who feel the same way. We are seeing today how organizations big and small and removing hurtful symbols, statues, mascots, and even branding labels are all changing. There are many opinions on this, but I personally support those decisions. These symbols, no matter how big or small, act as microaggressions, small acts that have a lasting impact on marginalized groups. Microaggressions send the signal that people are not welcomed and do not belong, even when that is not the intent. I was asked, “If I didn’t like the name of the neighborhood why did I move here?” There are several reasons for that, and those who know me and know my story may have some ideas. I first moved to Detroit while in college and I loved living here. I moved away and then moved back. My ex-wife and I wanted to live near downtown and loved both West Village and our neighborhood. When the opportunity came to move to Burns street, we were excited to make the move into such an amazing house. I disliked the name, but I looked past it. As a Native American and like other people of color, I have lived with these kinds of microaggressions my entire life. I imagine I am not alone when I say that you sometimes just feel like you have to live with it. That doesn’t make it right or ok.
That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t or isn’t upsetting. But I will admit, that sometimes I feel ground down by microaggressions.
I think a better question is, “Why do I want to stay?” Especially when I feel ground down. Quite simply, a neighborhood is not its name. A neighborhood is not the houses. A neighborhood is not the streets or businesses. A neighborhood is the people within it. I like where I live because of the people I live around. My neighbors look out each other. We know who our kids are and buy popcorn and cookies from them. We have parties and visit each other, we opened up our houses for tours to support each other, cocktail parties to socialize with each other, and at random times when people just walk up. Many of you have sat in my yard, toured my home, drank in my living room, and some have passed out on my couch. I feel fortunate, not to live in a house, it is nothing more than wood and stone. But to live next door and near so many kind and caring people. A house and its’ history may draw people to the neighborhood, but the best part of living here is not the homes. It is you.
In conclusion, the name “Indian Village” is historically inaccurate and is an example of using Indigenous culture as a marketing tool. We as a neighborhood are more than the history of the people who lived here 100 years ago. We are a vibrant neighborhood with an important future. I live surrounded by people who I know both agree and disagree with me. And I hope, will consider how I and others feel about this. I will close with a couple of rhetorical questions. First, would it be ok to name the neighborhood today in today’s climate? Do we want to hold on
to something that could be considered hurtful for no reason other than it was the name when the neighborhood was created? Does the name even make sense? I believe the answer to all of these questions is no. And that is why I think we should change our name.
This post was edited on August 21, 2020 to include the whole letter.