I spotted this old cemetery tucked behind the Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church as we were driving through Hessel on the Lake Huron shore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
The cemetery may date back to the early 1700s and still serves as a burial ground for Ojibwa (or Chippewa) members of the Sault Indian tribe and their families. The Sault tribe numbers about 44,000 members today.
A short item in The Journal of American Folklore from 1950 identified the oldest Indian burial ground in northern Michigan as the Greensky Hill Cemetery of Chippewa Indians between Petoskey and Charlevoix in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula, and I think it's entirely reasonable to think that this cemetery in Hessel may date from the same period.
The Native American Society for Historic Preservation (NASHP) maintains the cemetery and holds a life lease on the land, although I'm not sure exactly sure how long the "life lease" is in effect as I'm more familiar with the term as applied to housing and individual residents or families.
The burial ground once bore the name of Father Marquette Cemetery, but it reverted back to its original deeded name of Old Mission in 2003.
The cemetery neared capacity with 134 known graves by 2008, and the NASHP initiated volunteer efforts three years earlier, in 2005, to expand the cemetery and add as many as 200 new grave sites and seek funding for the project.
Many of the graves are marked with plain white crosses, many of them without names or other identifying information. Some markers and other engraved stones mark graves, sometimes accompanying the white wooden crosses.
I found one site with the names, birthdates and dates of death for the 42 markers existing and legible as of July 29, 2008.
One grave was even marked with a small "spirit house".
Such structures sit over a grave site, usually covering the length of the grave site and standing about two feet tall.
We saw several more spirit houses in smaller grave yards as we drove throughout the eastern Upper Peninsula, but I couldn't find much information online about the structures.
Sprit houses are common among several tribes. I found an interesting article with many photos of spirit houses in Native American cemeteries in Oklahoma and stories about some common Native American burial traditions and rituals.
They seem to be in keeping with Native American traditions of considering the soul as living on after the death of a person's physical body. The spirit living on becomes an important part of the spiritual forces affecting every aspect of life.
The little houses might protect the body for a short time as relatives and tribe members prepare to bury the body, or it serves as shelter for a restless spirit wandering around after a physical death.
Native American traditions and rituals where relatives and friends buried a body with food and other possessions sometimes led to numerous instances of grave-robbing and desecration done by vandals in hopes of finding valuables. Tribes also express concerns about archeological digs and museum acquisition of bones and other items from Native American graves on the grounds that such activity disrupts the natural cycle of life, death and a spirit's journey after death.
Such concerns led to passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1997 to protect graves and allow tribes an opportunity to see bones and artifacts taken from graves returned to their rightful resting place.
© Dominique King 2014 All rights reserved