Native American History, Art and Culture

Discover Michigan’s Native American history and culture at institutions across the state. See how our earliest inhabitants shaped much of Michigan’s heritage and continue to enrich many of the state’s exciting travel destinations. Delve into the lifeways of Michigan’s First People through their stories and exhibits at fascinating museums that offer insights and experiences that are Pure Michigan.  

Michigan’s Native American inhabitants or First People were the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Fox, Sauk, Kickapoo, Menominee, Miami, Ojibwe (also known as the Ojibway, Ojibwa, or Chippewa), and Potawatomi. The state’s very name is an Algonquian Indian word for “big lake.” Eventually, the Huron (or Wyandot) and the Ottawa (or Odawa) tribes migrated to the area.    

Michigan today is home to 12 federally recognized Indian tribes: Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians (Gun Lake Tribe), Hannahville Indian Community, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.     

We invite you to delve into the history and culture of this region’s First People through their stories, art and exhibits at fascinating museums that offer insights and experiences that are Pure Michigan. 

Enter the Michigan Historical Museum in the Capital City and step into thousands of years of history through “The First Inhabitants” exhibit. Two hunters dressed in white caribou skins greet visitors in a dramatic interpretation of the ancient Indians who stalked this land’s big game with handmade stone-tipped spears. Artifacts explore the tools, plants, pottery, and lifeways of the tribes that peopled Michigan before French fur traders found their way to the Great Lakes. The museum walks visitors through different periods of Michigan history, from its settlement as a state to the 20th century.

Nearby in Okemos the Nokomis Learning Center focuses on the history, arts, and culture of the Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe, the “people of the Three Fires.” In addition to exhibits, art shows, lectures and special programs, the center has a gift store offering books, crafts, baskets and music.

The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan established the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways in Mount Pleasant as a place to preserve and present the history and culture of the Great Lakes native people. The permanent exhibit, Diba Jimooyung: Telling Our Story does just that through dioramas, artifacts, documents, and the sound of Anishinabemowin, the language of the Anishinabe.

The center also features occasional changing exhibits and programs. The Meshtoonigewinoong Gift Shop carries books, bead working supplies, and the art, crafts and jewelry of more than 150 Anishinabek from the Great Lakes area. The Nindakenjigewinoong Research Center is a repository of documents, treaties, books and a family research room.

Videos and oral histories by descendants of the Ottawa, Potawatomi and Chippewa people of West Michigan form the often moving core of the permanent exhibit, Anishinabek: The People of This Place, at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. The museum showcases Native American artifacts, decorative arts, clothing, and displays.

One of the most highly respected art museums in the Midwest, the Muskegon Museum of Art, is internationally recognized as having a remarkable collection of art for a museum and community of its size. Included in its collection is the 70th edition of Edward Curtis' The North American Indian, obtained through subscription beginning in 1908.

In May of 2017, the Muskegon Museum of Art will present Edward S. Curtis:  The North American Indian, an exhibition of national significance that celebrates the artistic genius and lasting cultural legacy of Edward Curtis, the early-1900s photographer who sacrificed everything for his art, only to die in obscurity. For what may be the first time ever, the entire collection of all 723 portfolio photographs that comprise Curtis’s epic work will be on display.  Organized by the Muskegon Museum of Art, this exhibition will be the largest and most comprehensive survey ever presented of The North American Indian, and will run from May 11, 2017- September 10, 2017.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians tell its story at the Eyaawing Museum and Cultural Center located north of Traverse City in the Peshawbestown tribal community overlooking Grand Traverse Bay. The gift shop carries traditional crafts and contemporary artwork by tribe members including black ash baskets, bead and quill jewelry, dream catchers, and other jewelry made of Petoskey and native stones, books, and more.

Traverse City is also home to the Dennos Museum Center, which is known for its collection of Inuit art, including prints, tapestries, and sculpture.