[Please note the update to this article posted at the end.]
As the crowns of East Lansing’s cottonwood trees were blown about in the dramatic storms of the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 20, inside the Hannah Community Center the City Council was voting unanimously to name a park after the species.
Abbot Road Park – the parkland on the west side of Abbot Road across from the Family Aquatic Center – is to officially be renamed Azaadiwag Park.
“Azaadiwag” is an Anishinaabe name meaning “Many Cottonwoods” or “Place of the Cottonwood Trees.” The Anishinaabe are a group of indigenous people present in the Great Lakes region.
The change was spearheaded by East Lansing resident Nichole Biber, a longtime local advocate of indigenous peoples and environmentalism.
Biber was joined on the ad hoc renaming committee by an ethnically diverse group of women, including East Lansing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Administrator Elaine Hardy, Kayla Gomez, Shalanda Sandoval-Flores, Cheryl Dudley and Pam Weil. The city’s park naming process calls for a former mayor to participate and Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg (who was briefly mayor in 2021) filled that role.
The formal resolution for the renaming recognizes that “the City of East Lansing occupies the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands of the Three Fires Confederacy of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples’ land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw” and the importance of Native Peoples’ contributions to the past, present and future.
The resolution goes on to recognize that “many Indigenous communities are continuing their recovery and healing from the colonizing ravages of ecological devastation, alongside severances from family, community, culture, and language” and that “this legacy of loss and recovery is inseparable from the treatment of the land, water, and all living inhabitants therein.”
Cottonwoods – seen sometimes as nuisances for their seed-spreading “snow” storms – are celebrated in the resolution as sacred, environmentally important and as “hold[ing] a strong presence throughout the city and especially within the parklands, by virtue of their numbers, height, sound, and distinctive movement of leaves.”
Council member George Brookover moved approval of the renaming resolution, with Lisa Babcock speaking in support by saying the move was “long overdue.”
Mayor Ron Bacon said he is “one who is really anti-performative in major ways” but thought nevertheless that “there is nothing performative about” this renaming.
“When I think of native brothers and sisters, I mean you got the ultimate ‘I told you so’ with the world, with the nation, with our climate, with everything,” Bacon said. “You did tell us so on the climate. You told us on the water. You told us on our food supply. You told us on a lot of things and we didn’t listen. But we’re listening.”
Bacon said there is nothing he has hated more than cottonwoods, skunks and mosquitoes, but that he had changed his mind on cottonwoods.
The plan is to install signage at the park that helps explain the background and context for the name. Council member Dana Watson asked the parks department to also seize opportunities to provide pronunciation guides.
Update, Sept. 24, 2022, 10:30 a.m: Nichole Biber contacted ELi late on Sept. 23 to inform us that the name of the park will instead by “Azaadiikaa Park” after Council votes on an amendment to the park-naming resolution.
Biber explained, “An elder and fluent language speaker who has long been an important person to our community reached out and let us know a more accurate word to convey our chosen focus on ‘Many Cottonwoods.’ Instead of Azaadiwag, the more suitable name is Azaadiikaa. So, the park will be known as Azaadiikaa Park.”
She said she received a call from the elder the morning after the Sept. 20 renaming vote, “and he offered the clarification and some nice teachings about the language. So I quickly moved to make sure we all agreed to the importance of his guidance and reflecting his knowledge and standing as our highly esteemed and much loved elder. Everyone on our committee quickly agreed.”
Council is expected to vote on the amendment on Oct. 4. The renaming ceremony will occur on Indigenous People’s Day, Oct. 10, starting at 11 a.m.