The Andrew J. Blackbird Museum
Last summer, my family and I took our yearly summer trip to beautiful northern Michigan. Usually, I take a break from writing during the summer, but there’d been an idea percolating in my head for a third book in my Dark Horse YA mystery series. The premise involved Brynlei, the highly-sensitive MC from the first two novels, returning to Foxwoode Riding Academy as a counselor, instead of a camper. I had a few other plot points worked out in my head, but my story was still missing the paranormal/magical realism elements of the first two books in the series.
A few days into our trip, my husband and I were strolling through quaint downtown Harbor Springs when the Andrew J. Blackbird Museum caught my eye. It would have been easy to miss, being only one room in an unassuming white storefront at the very end of the main drag. Having nothing else to do, and never having noticed the museum on any of our previous trips, we went inside and checked it out.
Once inside, we were initially underwhelmed by the small museum and slightly uncomfortable being the only people there, aside from a woman behind the counter in the adjoining chamber of commerce. But we were already through the door and committed, so we began to browse. The room housed various Native American artifacts, inlcuding a canoe, pottery, moccasins, and arrowheads. I paused in front of a specific arrowhead believed to have belonged to the Ottawa tribe. It was nearly perfectly preserved. The artifact sparked an idea for my story.
Certainly there were more arrowheads from the Ottawa tribe buried beneath the earth that hadn’t yet been discovered. What if Brynlei uncovered one of them during her stay at Foxwoode? What if her sensitivities allowed her to feel its history? What if the arrowhead was related to the bad things happening to her campers? You can see how my imagination stampeded ahead. Brynlei already had so much in common with the Native Americans–her love of nature, her respect for animals, her belief in living for the seventh generation. With Foxwoode’s location in a fictional town in northern Michigan, the discovery of an arrowhead just like the one in the case was a natural addition to the storyline. I snapped a photo. (below)
We left the museum, my phone loaded with pictures and my creative mind brimming with inspiration. On the way out, we spent more time reading the sign out front about the history of the man, Andrew J. Blackbird, who the museum commemorated. And what an unbelievable history it was! Here’s the short version:
Andrew J. Blackbird, the son of the last known Ottawa chief, was born in 1815 in what is now Harbor Springs, MI. After white settlors overtook their land and forced them into “Christian” schools, Andrew assimilated to the new culture and attended what is now Eastern Michigan University. He lived with one foot in the old world and one foot in the new. He fought for Native American veterans to receive pensions. He helped settle land claims and worked to achieve citizenship for Native Americans. He married and bought a house in Harbor Springs, and even became the town’s second postmaster in 1858.
I was so intrigued by Mr. Blackbird’s story, that I bought his memoir, History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan, which was first published in 1887 by volunteers. The book was printed in the tiniest font I’ve ever seen and I practically had to use a magnifying glass to read it. However, I did learn several interesting tidbits from Blackbird’s firsthand account of his history, including one particularly horrific story about white men spreading small pox to the natives by giving them a tiny box filled with virus spores and instructing them to take it back to their village many miles away. This tragic story found its way into my book, as Brynlei does her own research on the Native Americans who lived in the area.
In any event, I was thankful to have learned more about the Native American tribes of northern Michigan and that Andrew J. Blackbird’s history has been preserved. As a bonus, the arrowhead ended up being an integral part of Cabin 5.
Have you ever been inspired to write a story based on a real life artifact? I’d love to hear about it!