American Indian activist hopes to ward off dune driveway by consecrating White River Township Barrier Dunes Sanctuary
On May 1st, the former professor of American Indian Studies at Michigan State University performed a “smudging ceremony” and planted a “sacred” ash tree at the White River Township Barrier Dunes Sanctuary, the site of a controversial proposed access road.
Bellfy, who is a member of the Crane Clan of the Ojibwe people, stood on Old Channel Trail, where he spoke to the assembled group about the significance of why they were all there.
“Our treaty rights give us the right to conduct traditional historical activities,” Bellfy said. “The state says that they want to cut down these trees but they haven’t asked us. If you tell somebody to don’t mess with your property and they do it anyway that’s trespassing.”
The whole action was designed as a symbolic protest to stake a claim on protected land that the environmental activist and many area residents want to see defended from encroachment by developers.
The Gezon family, which owns land adjacent to the dunes sanctuary, has proposed building a driveway or access road through the protected area to their property so they can build a home with a septic system. A Michigan Department of Natural Resources administrator currently is mulling the permit application.
“All those trees are sacred,” Bellfy said as he pointed to a stand of trees behind him. “Every grain of sand is sacred. It’s that place where the bones of our ancestors are buried. We have this historic right – those are our trees.”
The smoke from a burning sage plant was used at the start of the smudging ritual to cleanse those present and to purify the hallowed space.
According to American Indian religious beliefs, not only does the smoke carry the people’s prayers up to the creator but the act of smudging also works to drive out bad spirits from a consecrated place.
However, it would seem that the forces Bellfy and the local residents would like to ward off from the protected dunes sanctuary are all those that would seek to tarnish the natural beauty of this place with a man-made road.
“All those trees are sacred. Every grain of sand is sacred. It’s that place where the bones of our ancestors are buried.” — Phil Bellfy.
“We don’t want the dunes destroyed,” said Jamie Lloyd who has lived in a house across the street from dunes for many years. “We want them saved for generations to come.”
Neither Lloyd nor her husband Bob have any Native American heritage, but generations of the Lloyd family have lived in the area since the late 1800s and so they felt it was their duty to come and show their support. Jamie Lloyd even volunteered for the special role of official water carrier for the event.
“I got to be the water girl,” she said proudly.
After Bellfy asked for a female volunteer to bring water from the lake, Lloyd had agreed to march out to Lake Michigan to fill a bucket that would be used to water the ash tree that would be planted in the dunes.
“In our tradition the women are in charge of the water,” Bellfly said. “It’s their responsibility to maintain that.”
During the traditional ceremony, volunteers tied yellow, red, black and white ribbons representing east, south, west and north on tree branches in four separate corners of the wooded area. Bellfy followed close behind casting the sage smoke as if he was creating an invisible shield to bless and protect his people’s land.
“We have essentially declared that ground sacred,” he said. “It’s a visual (so) people will understand that this place is sacred.”
The last order of business was to plant the ash tree, which he did with the help of one of his former students, Noah Cooper, a law student at Michigan State studying indigenous policy.
“My deep love and profound respect for this place made it absolutely necessary to be here,” Cooper said. “The lake to me is like going to church and so anywhere along the lake is sacred ground.”
Cooper, who has Huron roots, recognizes that some of his forefathers’ religious practices are “hokey” but still sees value in the American Indian virtues of living a thankful life and showing a deep respect for the natural world.
“This ground has been danced on, sang upon and people’s parents have been buried here,” Cooper said. “We’ll stick up for it because the trees can’t stick up for themselves.”
Of the 40 or so people present at the ritual there were local business owners, residents and community leaders, including Muskegon County Board of Commissioners Chairman Ken Mahoney.
“It was an interesting ceremony,” Mahoney said. “Every little bit helps. I’m for preserving the dunes as they are.”
At the conclusion of the consecration ceremony, Bellfy said “meegwetch” which means “thank you” to everyone who had come out.
“We’re very honored that you’re here,” Jamie Lloyd responded as she joined the others in clapping.
Bellfy’s final words to small crowd were sober ones.
“If we all don’t start treating this land like the Indians did, we’re all dead,” he said.