The Bay Mills Indian Community is a reservation in the Upper Peninsula. It’s home to the native Ojibwe tribe and the location of a cultural tipping point. The tribe is going through its “seventh fire” or seventh generation, working to preserve their traditions and pass them on to future generations.
They’re featured in the documentary “The Seventh Fire: UP Michigan Natives reclaim their past to save their future,” made by Times Media Editor Tim Jagielo.
He traveled to the U.P. to learn about Ojibwe culture and shoot the documentary. It debuts in the 2019 Royal Starr Film Festival Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Emagine Theater in Royal Oak. The video is 70 minutes long.
“The Seventh Fire is a prophecy. It’s a part of their general history,” Jagielo said.
The seventh generation, which is the current phase, is about young tribe members having a choice — finding their way back to tradition and culture after it was nearly gone, or not.
Through language to education to powwows, this tribe is fighting to keep their culture alive.
“If we are no longer a unique individual, we’re no longer a people. If we are completely assimilated and do nothing different than the mainstream America, we’re no longer indigenous American people. We are just American people and that could change everything,” said Sonja Killips who is featured in the documentary.
Killips teaches the ojibwe language and native studies at Brimley Area Schools.
“No matter how little native blood you may have, or if you live on a reservation or how culturally active you are, we have to pick it up little by little,” she said, adding that they have to acknowledge and teach their culture. If not, it could give the federal government a reason to claim that they don’t need to be federally recognized, have land protection, recognize and teach history, and more.
“We need students to realize that every little bit they do will impact the future,” she said.
Killips is shown multiple times in the documentary, which she said was “shocking” because she didn’t think she’d play such a big part in it. She was the one who originally mentioned the efforts to keep the culture alive, prompting Jagielo to alter the focus of the documentary and make it longer.
“It was interesting and fun. I like getting that information out as best I can,” she said.
“Things could go one way or the other,” Jagielo said. “They’re supposed to be revitalizing their culture and sharing it.”
Jagielo got the idea from columnist Mark Rummel, who frequently travels to the U.P. with his wife Sally Rummel, features writer for the Times. Rummel told Jagielo that there were native arts and crafters in the U.P., so Jagielo made some calls.
The U.S. government calls it the Bay Mills Indian Community, which is located in Chippewa County. The term the Ojibwe use for themeselves is “Anishinaabeg,” which means “first people” in the Ojibwe language. They have their own government, school system, health department and more.
Planning began approximately four years ago. Jagielo’s first trip was a five-day trip the first week of November 2015 when he shot footage of basket making, gill netfishers, trap net fishing and more.
“I got the natural beauty of the area,” he said. “That trip was supposed to be a punchy short documentary, but Sonja Killips broke it wide open talking about how it’s an important movement. That is what led to it being a long-term documentary.”
Jagielo returned to Bay Mills four more times to learn more and interview people about fighting to keep their culture alive. The documentary covers how decades ago, many native youths were forced into American boarding schools and lost the knowledge of traditions.
The documentary shows the tribe’s focus on education and community to preserve their culture.
The hardest part wasn’t getting there or meeting people, Jagielo said.
“That part was easy. It was compiling everything and narrowing it down. 6,000 files are attached to that project,” he said. “I can only leave in about 5 percent of what I shot. I went there for days and days...you have to decide — what’s the story? How do you make this a story when it’s continuing? You have to make it feel like a movie.”
Jagielo said he’s going to sit in the back of the theater Sunday at the Royal Starr Film Festival. “I don’t know how I feel. People have watched my stuff before. There may be even smaller crowds than the last documentary. I’m nervous,” he said.
He hopes people are interested in the tribe’s effort to save their culture in Bay Mills, which is happening right in Michigan.
“It’s a good thing to know about your local history and history of indigenous people … Not every big change happens quickly or with a bang. Some things happen really slowly and some things happen quietly,” he said.