GTPulse: The Story of the Crooked Trees

Crooked, bent, kinked, however you put it, you may have seen these attention-grabbing trees around town. I saw my first crooked tree while at the Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park. While on a tour with Karen Schmidt, she pointed out the marvel behind the butterfly garden. The statuesque tree looks like any other up top, but as the eye follows the branches down, there’s a distinct and sharp crook in the trunk.

“Our wonderful ‘arrow’ tree certainly looks like one of the Native American marker trees.  If it isn’t we still love this amazing tree, she looks like she is leaning over and dancing!”

Apparently there are three of the crooked trees in Traverse City, and after a stroll down Washington where I saw another one, I wanted to know more about them. I reached out to Eric Hemenway, Director of Department of Reperation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians to learn more.

“A colleague of mine sent a picture of one that looked like it was downtown Detroit, they’re out by Saginaw. They’re all over the state. I think they’re all over the Great Lakes really. They were used as markers for direction,” he said.

Native people have been living here for thousands of years and they used to be in almost constant motion.

“They traveled extensively, they never stayed in one spot so they were always on the move. They were going to meet other tribes for trade, they were going to meet other tribes for war, they’re going to meet to settle the war for diplomacy, they’re going to exchange goods, exchange information, and also, Native people were very cognizant of their environment. They still are.”

Part of the frequent traveling was to not deplete the land of resources. They took care to be responsible for the land and its future.

“It was a priority to maintain and balance resources so people wouldn’t stay in one spot and exhaust their resources. They would constantly be on the move to let areas replenish and go to an area where a resource was in abundance a certain time of year. So, for example, the Odawas who were up here would go south for the winter. When I say south I’m not saying Florida or Georgia, I’m talking Kalamazoo or northern Illinois. They would winter down there and in the spring they would come back north, make sugar and plant their crops. They did this so the soil wouldn’t be exhausted. Let the Earth replenish itself. They were the ultimate environmentalists, they were stewards.”

With so much time spent moving around, they needed a system to know where they were going. Once upon a time, GPS wasn’t always at our fingertips.

“You gotta know where you’re going. So they bent trees, and they were markers.”

The trees get bent as saplings with rope and weights at different points in the trees growth, usually a maple, because in their formative years they’re more pliable.

The trees are everywhere in the state. 

“75 was built on an old Indian trail, so is 31 and 94 and 96. So these are all old paths of transportation and so there are markers along these paths of transportation that are roads today. They were ways to signal where you were or if there was lodging up ahead. These trees told that. They had messages.”

 There’s no way to know how many crooked trees there are still standing, many of them have already been cut down due to the massive logging industry in 1800s.

“Some of them did survive and became oddities on peoples property.”

Which explains the tree on Washington and the marker that denotes that the tree was ‘Bent By Indians’ as a ‘guide post on trail Detroit to Straits of Mackinaw’ by the Grand Traverse Historical Society.

As a child, Eric was told about the crooked trees in Emmet County. They were pointing to a special place.

“To a place called Green Sky Hill. It’s a church and a burial for our ancestors. But also, adjacent to Green Sky Hill is a circle of bent trees. In the 1800s the Odawa leaders in northern Michigan would come to this circle of bent trees to hold council. I believe the trees were built before the church, what better place than our old council grounds? The trees predate the church.”

If you are lucky enough to run into a crooked tree, know that it didn’t happen by accident. They’re historical landmarks that tell a story from the Native people of this land. Protect them, revere them, know their significance.  

“They knew the land through the trees. They really are something special.”

To stay updated on stories like these, join the newsletter community.

Categories: GTPulse