Miengun's Children: Tales from a Mixed-Race Family

Article excerpt

Mrs. Jessie W. Hilton of Albuquerque, N.M., who summers at her cottage Mi-en-gun Walszh (Wolf's Den) in Northport, was hostess at 5:00 o'clock Wednesday at Schuler's of this city honoring Mrs. C. Stuker of Oak Park, III., house guest of her sister, Mrs. Basil Milliken of Oklahoma City, Okla., summer resident at Northport.

Traverse City [Michigan] Record Eagle, July 7, 1954 (1)

At the time of this gathering of summer society in a northern Michigan resort town, Jessie Hilton was eighty-nine years old. For more than fifty years, she had been a summer resident of Northport, on the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, north and west of Traverse City, leaving her home in Oklahoma City every June and returning from Michigan in October, events noted in the society pages of newspapers in both places. The only break in this pattern occurred in 1947, when she moved from Oklahoma City to her daughter's house in Albuquerque, from which she continued to commute each summer to the Leelanau. Despite Jessie's social standing, however, her annual pilgrimages differed from most sojourns of the genteel and well-heeled to northern Michigan. Twice divorced, she was long accustomed to supporting herself, and she ran a shop in Northport during the summer tourist season, selling Indian handicrafts and pies that she made from the cherries for which the Traverse region is famous. The silverwork for sale at the "Cherry Buttery" came from New Mexico, but the sweet grass and split ash baskets were the work of local Odawa and Ojibwe people, some of whom Hilton had known far longer than she had been summering on the Leelanau. (2) Indeed, the annual arrival of Jessie Hilton, society matron and purveyor of Indian handicrafts, at the Wolf's Den signaled the complexity and fluidity of a mixed-race identity that she, like her twelve brothers and sisters, had spent a lifetime negotiating.

It was, and remains, customary in northern Michigan for people to name their summer cottages and to erect signs to this effect. The words "Mah Enggon ne wazsh" (another spelling of the Anishnaabemowin for wolf's den) appeared on the sign for the Northport cottage when it was first occupied by Jessie's mother, Mary Jane, after her divorce from Payson Wolfe, Jessie's father, in 1879. A child at the Protestant mission over which Mary Jane's father, the Reverend George N. Smith, presided in the 1840s, Payson took the English translation of his father's name, Miengun, as his surname. (3) Payson's first name was the same as that of the young son of the mission farmer. Thus, although it conformed to their custom, "Mi-en-gun Walszh" represented not the clever conceit of white summer people with some awareness of the presence of Indigenous people in the Traverse region, but literally the home of a mixed race, Odawa-and-white family named Wolf(e).

The 1851 wedding of Payson Wolfe, an Indigenous man, and Mary Jane Smith, the white daughter of missionaries, was an unusual event, but it was hardly unique. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, reformer Alice Robertson attended a number of meetings of the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian, where she argued repeatedly for biological absorption through interracial marriage as a solution to the problem posed to mainstream society by the final conquest of American Indian peoples. The Lake Mohonk Conference served as a major forum for the formation and articulation of assimilation policy and drew an array of reformers and federal officials. Robertson's advocacy of biological absorption derived from personal experience; the daughter of Protestant missionaries in Indian Territory, she ran a boarding school for Indian girls in eastern Oklahoma. As Robertson told the conference, "I have known a great many missionary families brought up among Indians, and I have yet to know one in which at least one member has not intermingled with Indians." In her own family, a sister and an aunt had married Indians, and Robertson promoted marriages between her Native charges at the Minerva Boarding School and white men. …