Artist preserves the history of Native American trail trees

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An unconventional road sign in a Traverse City park marks part of a route that once stretched from Detroit to the Straits of Mackinac.

The over 200-year-old sign is a tree bent like a sapling by Native Americans to mark the north/south trail through Michigan.

And it’s among the Great Lakes region’s marker trees that Illinois artist and author Dennis Downes has spent a career identifying and preserving.

You probably won’t forget the first time you see one, said Downes, 71.

“That’s the interesting part about it,” he said. “Almost everyone I’ve taken to Dark Trees, they can usually tell me what they were wearing and what time of year it was, even 30 years later.”

These directional markers once marked things like where to cross a river and where to enter and exit trails. Sometimes a tribe may use one as a decoy to mislead other tribes.

The distinctive tall trees look unnatural in the desert, resembling the number four.

They were formed by bending young trees and fixing them in that position until the tree was mature enough to maintain that shape. There are probably only a few hundred original trail trees left in the Great Lakes region, Downes said. Some are over 200 years old.

Finding them is difficult. Most of the thousands of trees he has visited in the Great Lakes are not trail trees. To find them, he had to open his eyes in new ways. The research is like the strategies he was taught to hunt deer, he says.

“You have to look for something horizontal in a vertical world,” he said. “Then you can start reading the landscape at a fast pace.”

Dennis Downes and his wife, Gail Spreen, are pictured in front of a sign tree in La Crosse, Wis.

Trees were extremely important to the Native American way of life, Downes said.

“People were paying a lot more attention to it because your life usually depended on those things,” he said.

Downes helped maintain the connection between Native Americans, their ancestors, and the tribal nations of the past, said Andrew Johnson, executive director of the Native American Chamber of Commerce in Illinois.

“What he showed was that these treasured items are still around today and need to be understood and acknowledged,” Johnson said. “He helped instill the knowledge of the past, keeping it front and center (of our minds) for us today.”

There is growing interest in such efforts. The Traverse City tree in Grand Traverse County Civic Center Park was fenced off and marked with an inscribed rock in 2016, said county director of parks and recreation John Chase. But it is also the subject of a park improvement plan that would increase its visibility with interconnecting trails.

“A big part (of the planned improvements) is to rebuild the north end of the park and do more honor to the tree and its heritage,” Chase said.

Downes first heard about the trees on the trail from his Native American aunt when, as a child, he wanted to learn about her heritage. There was then little to no research into the trees on the trail, which made it even more curious.

“It felt like there was a void,” he said. He was determined to fill that void and fell in love with the trees on the trail. He tried to bring their story to light, despite the discouragement of adults and teachers.

“The more I learned, the more (I found that) I didn’t know enough,” he said.

Every year he wrote an article about what he had learned. After compiling 28 years of articles, he decided to write “Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths through the Wilderness”. Released in 2011, it costs $90 and can be found on Amazon and at many retailers. It contains photographs and illustrations by Downes.

He also founded the Trail Marker Tree Society so people across the United States and the world can read about his work.

“I just think it’s an incredible use of natural resources in our area,” Downes said. “I didn’t want that concept to go away.”

Downes has spent decades working closely with many Native American tribes to learn more about the trees on the trail. He did research with nine or 10 Native American tribes, including Chippewa, Ottawa and Cherokee, he said.

“I’ve been to 41 states. I went to five provinces, went through three Ford pickups, putting 300,000 miles on each one,” he said.

His travels connected him to his ancestry and helped other Native Americans discover their heritage.

“I proved their role in history to them,” he said.

Downes, who lives in Chain O’Lakes, Illinois, is a full-time artist who primarily paints landscapes of the Great Lakes region. He uses the profits from his paintings to fund his trail tree work.

While fans have said he should focus more on his art, he hands out Trail Trees brochures at every art show and event he attends. He participates in and organizes many of the trail’s tree replanting events to raise awareness of trees and landscapes. the area where they grow to ensure they look presentable.

He seeks to connect the citizens of the Great Lakes to the Native Americans who inhabited the area and wants to change the perception that Native Americans were barbarians.

“I like to point out the smart things that Native Americans did,” he said. This is a point he reiterates often.

“I try to end my talks by taking my hands, spreading my fingers, bringing them together and explaining that we should all be together in everything we do,” he said.

His goal is to create permanent sculptures of the trees on the trail so that their history is not forgotten. Downes built four of these sculptures across Illinois. Each comes with a plaque he wrote explaining the history of the trees on the trail.

One sculpture is in the Lake County Discovery Museum, another at the estate of American filmmaker John Hughes in Hebron. One is at The Grove in Glenview and another in Antioch on Main Street.

He is looking for accommodation for a fifth sculpture he has just completed.

“What a brilliant concept to help educate people and never take it out of history again,” he said.

Downes battles colon cancer with the same positive attitude he brings to his hiking tree work. He wears a black vest and white shirt to chemotherapy sessions “to try to inspire others not to just put on a hoodie and crawl around the corner,” he said.

“I had a great life,” he said. “I did more than I ever thought I could accomplish, so I try not to be sad that I was dealt a bad hand.”

He hopes his pamphlets, speeches and sculptures will inspire others to delve into the rich history of the trees on the trail as well.

“I am planting seeds across the country and later those seeds will turn into trees and bear fruit,” he said.

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