Members of both the Allegan County Historical Society and the Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians worked together to remove skeletal remains from the Old Jail Museum archives and give them a proper burial. (Photo by Virginia Ransbottom)

Skeletal remains find home with Gun Lake Tribe

'Charlie' stored 54 years with historical society
By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

The Old Jail Museum really did have a skeleton in its closet. Since 1964, a box at the museum had housed the skeletal remains of an American Indian unearthed in late fall of 1964 by workers on a Menasha construction site along the Kalamazoo River in Otsego—now USG.

An investigation ensued to identify the remains and determine if a homicide occurred. The remains were sent to the Michigan State Lab where the bones were dated to the late 1700s, with no cause of death determined. The skeleton was male, an American Indian, in his late 40s, about 6 feet tall and buried in an area that, prior to white settlers and paper mills, was a tranquil spot overlooking the river and surrounded by hot springs.

With no name, the police force affectionately named him “Charlie” and set about finding him a home.

Members of the Allegan County Historical Society stepped forward and said Charlie could stay at the Old Jail Museum where he would be treated with dignity, honor and respect since he was a direct connecting link between the present and the long ago past.

And that’s where Charlie sat, for 54 years, eventually forgotten in the archives after members of the historical society came and went, memorialized in their own graves.

“I didn’t know there were remains here until two-and-a-half years ago and knew it was important to have them repatriated having no business for being in our archives or in the museum as something to gawk at,” said Scott Kuykendall, president of the historical society. “We’ve been working two-and-a-half years to get him a proper resting place.”

On Friday, Nov. 9, that day came. Charlie was handed over to the Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians who gave Charlie’s remains back to the earth on Pottawatomi Indian land that same night.

“He waited a long time for this,” said tribal cultural historian Kevin Finney. “Most institutions thought of remains and objects as a part of collections—academia massing—but now the injustice is being righted.

“It was the ultimate erasure of people—removing them from the land—but it’s right to turn them back over.”

Tribal elder Sydney Martin said most people now realize the injustice.

“In our culture, when you die, you give your body back to the earth,” Martin said. “It was common to be buried where you died and for many that was at their sturgeon spearing grounds.”

Martin is the Gun Lakes Tribe of Pottawatomi representative of the Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation and Repatriation Alliance.

Martin said since the tribe became federally recognized, the remains of eight of their ancestors have been repatriated through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act; however, prior to that her family was sought out, mostly by farmers, to claim remains uncovered while plowing farms.

“We have unique skeletal features—shovel teeth, brow lines more pronounced and the toe next to the big toe is the longer one—these characteristics are only from the Great Lakes ‘Anishinaabe’—meaning first or original human,” Martin said.

Out of respect for the deceased, tribal members asked that the box carrying Charlie’s remains not be photographed.

The day Charlie was finally handed over to his ancestors, it was the first snow accumulation of the season.

“It is fitting,” said tribal elder Lorraine “Punkin” Shananaquet, also an Alliance representative. “Sacred snow came to bless Mother Earth and to purify.”

After signing papers transferring the remains from the museum to the Alliance, tribal members said they would have a feast as part of the ceremony for delivering the body back to the earth.

“We will eat a meal with him and leave a spirit plate for his journey to his forever place,” said Shananaquet.

Tribal members were also given a copy of a newspaper article, “‘Charlie’ has a new home,” written in January 1965 by Mrs. Otto Roller. The article told of the history of the area before and after white settlers came and how it was believed at the time that housing Charlie at the museum was the right thing to do.

And then Charlie finally went back home to where he was meant to be.

Virginia Ransbottom can be contacted at vransbottom@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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