Lost history IV: Doing right by the sharpshooters


by Cynthia Price

This is the conclusion of a bit of local/Michigan history that was explored in the February 1, 28, and March 7 issues of The Examiner. It concerns Native Americans (25 or so from Oceana County) who were initially forbidden to enter the Civil War and then, when their skills became apparent (and they were desperately needed), were recruited into Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters.

The story of the Native American sharpshooters now jumps forward almost 150 years to a meeting between Kickapoo-Bodewadmi (Potawatomi) Roger Williams/KooKoosh Kchinodin (which means “little fat pig westwind,” which both honors Williams and makes him laugh), and the writerfilmmaker/musician David Schock. Shock has been featured in the Examiner before concerning his cold case movies such as Who Killed Janet Chandler?

Having found out from Chris Czopek, the historian mentioned in earlier lost history episodes, that seven of the Native Americans who were in Company K had died at the notorious Civil War prison Andersonville, Kchinodin asked Shock if he would be interested in filming a trip to honor those dead.

Andersonville, which is almost synonymous with horror, was a Confederate prison camp built to house 8,000-10,000 prisoners. At one point it held 30,000 as conditions became more and more horrific, and 13,000 died there.

Out of the Native Americans in Company K, 15 ended up in Andersonville, and seven died there. Though Shock says there are small gravestone-like plaques set up featuring each of their names, he and others think they were probably buried in a mass grave.

Czopek got to know someone from the Saginaw-Chippewa Ogitchedaw Warrior Society (“ogitchedaw” translates as “great heart,” and refers both to the societies and to veterans-warriors in general), who invited him to make a presentation. When Czopek told them the details of what he had found out from a trip to Andersonville to the Ogitchedaw, people started realizing that they recognized the names.

“Chris and I started talking and I said to him, I don’t think they’ve ever had their ceremonies. Their spirits may be walking around down there and not been released yet,” said Williams/Kchinodin. “We all said, hey, let’s take a trip down there and do a pipe and a ceremony, and give them some food and tobacco to send their spirits off.”

He was familiar with Shock through helping set up a powwow in Holland when Shock was a faculty member at Hope College. Kchinodin asked Schock if he would come down and film the trip, first because it was a historical moment, but second because Kchinodin wanted to demonstrate that “modern-day Indians have not forgotten those few who served so bravely.”

Once the group of about twelve who made the trek was there, about seven warriors donned their traditional garb including dull yellow, or ochre, shirts. Kchinodin points out that the color reflects traditional ways for the Anishnabe, those affiliated with the “Three Fires” tribes of the Midwest, Odawa-Ottawa, Ojibway-Chippewa, and Bowadmi-Potawatomi. It refers to one of the colors included in the medicine wheel, which in turn points to the different directions, North East South and West.

Though most of those tribal members think of the direction represented by yellow as south, some associate it with the north. “None of these things are ‘coming down from the mountain set in stone,’ so I try to be flexible,” Kchinodin says.

He describes what happened that day,?March 10, 2010: It started with the traditional ritual of smudging the area, a process sort of like spraying it down with smoke from a sage plant to consecrate it. “We set up a mini-powwow area... then we danced in the colors. And of course, we had a drum singing these songs as we did that. Then we stood for the flag song and had a prayer, and posted the colors.

“And then the speakers began, including Chris Czopek. He did a very good job of giving a short history of Company K. A Mr. Bennett from the staff of Andersonville welcomed us and said some very nice things about our coming down. He said we would be part of the history of Andersonville from then on.” (A visit to the Andersonville website reveals this is true. To see photos of the event, visit https://www.nps.gov/ande/learn/historyculture/americanindiansatandersonville.htm.)

“Then we feasted and gave tobacco and food to each of the graves represented by the stones. Even though the stones are weather-worn, we could still read them.

“Then we came home,” he concludes, adding with humor that they also patted each other on the back.

It took quite a while for the film to be completed, largely because there was no money other than a $15,000 grant from the Michigan Arts and Humanities Council. Shock said that covered about 10 percent of the actual cost, but he was happy to do it.

“I can tell you from my standpoint, it was a great honor. I made friends and learned so much. We will be friends for a lifetime,” commented Shock.

After premiering at Central Michigan University in 2013, the film went on to win an award from the Michigan Historical Society. A shorter version (one hour versus about two) was shown on various PBS stations, and there is a resource guide to help teachers who want to teach from the film.

Shock credits the books These Men Have Seen Hard Service by Raymond Herek, and Who Was Who in Company K, by Chris Czopek as the basis for the research in the film. Both of these have been featured in previous parts of this lost history series.

An additional tie-in to the Examiner series is that Roger Williams/KooKoosh Kchinodin is familiar with, and may be related to, Chief Cobmoosa, whose tale of displacement into Oceana County set the scene for the later story about Company K. In fact, Kchinodin’s grandfather was subjected to something similar, when his tribal lands were sold out from under him and he was forced to relocate.

“That’s a pretty common story with the Native Americans. A lot of the history books made it sound like we moved to Kansas voluntarily. They don’t saying anything about the Trail of Death,” Kchinodin says. (The Potawatomi Trail of Death was a case where the militia forcefully removed a group of about 860 native people from Indiana; along the way, more than 40 died, including many children.)

In keeping with that historical theme, Shock has another film in mind.  “The next project if we’re fortunate is the burnout at Burt Lake [near Cheboygan], an egregious miscarriage of justice. The land was supposed to be held in trust for the Native Americans but it got put on the tax rolls and in 1900 the putative owner moved out the women and children there and burned 19 of the 20 houses. They lost their lands and they lost their sovereignty.”

Shock’s website offers The Road to Andersonville for download at a cost of $20; visit roadtoandersonville.com

To purchase the shorter version, go to www.visionmakermedia.org/films/road-andersonville