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Michigan Is Trying to Make Its Historic Markers More Accurate and Less Racist

It can take a lot of time—and some heavy bureaucratic lifting—to tell an honest story about a state’s past.

As a kid growing up in Michigan, Renée “Wasson” Dillard spent long days in the back seat of her family’s station wagon, watching the world blur by.

Back then, before the American Indian Religious Freedom Act passed in 1978, powwows and other Native American ceremonies and gatherings were often conducted in private—in basements or back rooms, or far out in farmers’ fields. So Dillard’s family—members of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians—would travel to these events, crisscrossing the state, driving south, or roving west.

Their literal journey was also a symbolic one. “We were on this journey as family to reclaim our traditional culture,” says Dillard, whose father and grandmother, born in 1898, had been in enrolled in Indian Residential Schools—part of a legacy of whitewashing Native communities and history. As a result, “there was [an] interruption in traditional cultural knowledge.”

On the road, Dillard’s family often pulled over at lookouts or rest stops to read the historic markers that dot the state. “Mom was kind of a history buff,” Dillard says. “And someone took the time to put them up, so we took the time to read them.”

 . . .

Michigan is speckled with more than 17,000 gold-and-green historical plaques. Like their counterparts across the country, these signs make history plainly visible—but only to the extent that a single paragraph can encompass centuries of nuance, acknowledge several different perspectives, and hold up over time. It’s a tall order.

So now the state is taking up the task of telling its own story in a contemporary manner, rewriting the way its historic markers recount the past.

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Tags: #history, #indigenouspeoples
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