2018-07-19 / Life in Leelanau

Where It All Began

Impact of Mama Bear and her cubs continues today at the Lakeshore
By Kelsey Pease
of the Enterprise staff


OVER 500 copies of the classic “The Legend of Sleeping Bear” were signed last week at the Sleeping Bear visitor center by the book’s illustrator, Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. Pictured are Frankenhuysen alongside his wife, Robbyn, and eager readers of the Thomas Family from Pittsburgh, (left to right) Christine, Lily, Ava and Grace. OVER 500 copies of the classic “The Legend of Sleeping Bear” were signed last week at the Sleeping Bear visitor center by the book’s illustrator, Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. Pictured are Frankenhuysen alongside his wife, Robbyn, and eager readers of the Thomas Family from Pittsburgh, (left to right) Christine, Lily, Ava and Grace. The legend of Sleeping Bear has been handed down for centuries among the Anishnaabek people who conceived it. The illustrator of “The Legend of Sleeping Bear,” the official children’s book for the state of Michigan, is coming to understand the legend’s staying power.

Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen is more commonly known as “Mr. Nick.”

“I had no idea that it would go on for 20 years,” said van Frankenhuyzen, speaking of the first book he was hired to illustrate.

Just a few weeks ago, the book’s impact was made apparent to van Frankenhuyzen when a little girl asked him to sign her copy that she’d brought from home. When he opened it to the front cover, he was surprised to see that he had already signed it. “It was signed to Amy, 1998,” he recalled. “I realized that this little girl’s mother was seven years old when she got the book, and now her daughter was bringing the same book back for me to sign for her.”

According to Eric Hemenway, director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, the story’s timelessness illustrates the beliefs of Anishnaabek communities.

“I understand time as it was explained to me,” Hemenway said in an interview on Michigan Radio last year, “especially with storytelling, time goes in a circle...so time is always beginning and it’s ending and beginning and ending and it keeps going in this cycle.

“In our teachings, many times the event is paramount, the event is what is stressed in the story... when it happened isn’t as important as the event itself.”

The story of the legend has been handed down by both Native and non-Native Americans. It tells of the fleeing of a mother bear and her two cubs from a forest fire in Wisconsin. After swimming across Lake Michigan in search of safety, the mother makes it to the Michigan shoreline to wait for her cubs, who never arrive. Out of her sadness, she became the dunes at Sleeping Bear and her cubs that perished in the lake became South and North Manitou islands.

“They became a part of the landscape of the Great Lakes,” Hemenway said.

That was the the version Hemenway learned while growing up in Cross Village, and essentially the same version as described in “The Legend of Sleeping Bear.”

But other versions have been passed down in the great oral tradition of Native peoples.

“These stories are unique to a lot of different [native] communities, so a community could have the same story, but it’s a little bit unique to their area,” Hemenway said. “I’m sure the story is a little bit different in Wisconsin.”

Although the bestselling book, declared by the Michigan Legislature as “The Official Children’s Book of the state of Michigan,” refers to the origin story of Sleeping bear as a “legend,” that term, as well as a “myth” or “folktale,” are ones that Hemenway suggests avoiding when discussing the teachings of the Anishnaabek.

“They lead to this story not being true,” Hemenway said. “These stories do have credence and truth for the communities that believe in them ... so when you start to put labels on these stories, that starts to take away from the truth that’s in those traditions.”

Laura Quakenbush, past historian and museum curator for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, has always sought to ensure that the story of our Anishnaabek neighbors is accurately told.

“We need to be culturally respectful of the origins of that story and honor the intent which it was told in the first place,” Quackenbush said. “We must recognize that it is an important cultural tradition.”

Readers of the Sleeping Bear book never seem to tire of hearing the story.

“Twenty years went so fast,” van Frankenhuyzen said. “It’s always been so popular.”

Just last week, van Frankenhuyzen signed more than 500 books at an event held at the Philip A. Hart Visitors Center.

“I thought there was going to a be a point where everyone had the book,” van Frankenhuyzen said.

According to Hemenway, it’s the living landscape that has kept the story popular today among visitors who view the landscapes that reflect Mama Bear and her cubs.

“I think that what makes it even more powerful is that we visit these places where this occurred,” Hemenway said. “You’re a part of that living landscape as the story is being told to you. It’s a very powerful experience.”

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