Eagles, prayers, promises follow Marquette’s bones

Jon Magnuson, Cedar Tree Institute

Last month, in a far corner of the Upper Peninsula, whistles made from eagle bones sounded over Mission Bay, just North of State Street in the village of St. Ignace. The remains of Fr. Jacques Marquette were reverently placed back into the ground where the bones of that Jesuit priest and explorer was buried in 1677. Anishinaabe prayers, echoes of drums, and the scent of burning sage floated over the Courtyard of the Museum of Ojibwa Culture

Days later, we were contacted by a resident of our community whom we have never met, who informed us they were quietly present for the event. They wrote that, during the ritual that Saturday afternoon, they experienced a deep, extraordinary feeling that the return of Marquette’s bones was not simply a historical, significant moment, but part of some beginning, a healing yet to unfold.

As witnesses to that event, we’ve pondered this unexpected communication. Teetering on another anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, our country struggles with discouraging signs of social upheaval, violence, and political division.

There’s a promise from history and religious life that hopeful invitations may await those who may be listening and longing. Two of them emerge, for us, from this unusual experience of reverence and prayer on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac.

First, is a renewed appreciation for peoples who are members of the five American Indian Reservations that now are a part of Michigan’s the U.P.’s cultural and spiritual legacy. It was Native American spiritual leaders of St. Ignace who, along with that city’s Museum of Ojibwa Culture, led efforts with Marquette University in Milwaukee to arrange the transfer of Marquette’s bones to their original burial site back here in the U.P.

Respecting Native American heritage makes us better citizens of a common landscape we share. One bishop we know, whenever he travels across his diocese, always begins his public presentations with a recognition of what Canadian’s call First Nation peoples, honoring specific tribes that once inhabited the land on which he stands. Names of rivers, villages, and towns are a part of that legacy. They virtually surround us. We stand on contributions from indigenous history. And often forget it.

Federal policies that once dismissed the essential integrity of tribal communities still contribute to the lack of respecting treaty rights and basic tenets of tribal sovereignty. We need a balanced, honest rewriting of our schools’ history books.

A second, prophetic invitation is offered to us all by a 90-year-old Jesuit priest, instrumental in assisting in the return of Fr. Marquette’s remains. He traveled from Kentucky to join us that day. On the morning of the ceremony, he addressed a circle of us during a time of prayer and the blessing of ceremonial pipes. These were his words.

“Not many are aware that Fr. Jacques Marquette, who came to New France in the 17th century to live and minister among native people, was a careful observer of the natural world. His journals contain descriptions of the forests, maps of rivers, and species of wildlife that combined fascinating perceptions from both spiritual and scientific worlds. My hope is that he will, one day, become known as a saint. That he will come to be regarded as among the first of environmentalists who loved and was eager to learn from Native peoples. How to live not only on the land, but with it.”

Along with a written greeting from Marquette’s descendants in France, the reburial of Fr. Marquette’s remains was also highlighted by sacred songs from Canada’s First Nation representatives and the presence of guests from Washington State and Wisconsin. Tribal members from Odawa and Potawatomi communities joined us. Prayers from Jewish and Buddhist traditions were lifted up and honored.

For many of us, the respect of diverse cultures, the power of prayers, drums, and eagle whistles that day will not be forgotten. Nor the small bag of fruit placed reverently with Marquette’s bones in the handcrafted birch and cedar container which holds his remains. A flint and steel was also gently placed among the gifts to accompany Marquette’s spirit. An Ojibwa elder whispered to us, “He will need that, to give him light and warmth as he travels home.”

Marquette’s bones have been put to rest. His spirit carries us forward. Now it’s our turn. For whatever time may be given to each of us, we have a chance to do our own small, but important part in building our home, this blessed nation, spiritually and environmentally, anew.

Editor’s note: Jon Magnuson, Steve Mattson and Jim Elder and members of the Cedar Tree Institute. (cedartreeinstitute.org)


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