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One year after name change, a pledge to preserve Azaadiikaa Park's Indigenous roots lives on

image shows an Indigenous woman dressed in a rose-pink dress. she is wearing lipstick and her hair is tied into a side ponytail. she poses in between two cottonwood trees.
Megan Schellong
Nichole Keway Biber is a tribal citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. She also serves on multiple commissions in East Lansing, advocating for environmental justice and clean water.

Tucked away in a neighborhood just north of Michigan State University is a quiet wooded area, where trees, birds and bees dance in all of Michigan’s seasons — from its harsh winters to its wet and humid summers.

Azaadiikaa Park is the largest public park in East Lansing. Formerly Abbot Road Park, the city changed its name to reflect the language of the Anishinaabe people, the Indigenous community native to the Great Lakes region.

"Azaadiika means 'the place where many cottonwoods grow.'"
Nichole Keway Biber

"Azaadiikaa means 'the place where many cottonwoods grow.' And there are a nice number of cottonwood trees here," said Nichole Keway Biber, a tribal citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians.

Walking along the park's Northern Tier Trail, Keway Biber reflected on her request to change the park's name into Anishinaabemowin.

"In the thought that the renaming of the park with our language would mark an intention to be a better steward of this space," she explained.

But Keway Biber said she's been dismayed watching the city’s actions in the months that followed and worries that East Lansing is not committing to land preservation.

During the renaming ceremony, the Anishinaabeg planted seeds for native plants. Afterwards, the city's Department of Public Works mowed over the grass and the seeds stopped growing. Keway Biber said the mowing has hindered environmental restoration efforts.

"To recognize how every foot we see has a capacity to have greater life there, more biodiversity there," Keway Biber said.

this is an image of an indigenous woman wearing a pink wrap around dress. she has long dangling earrings and wears her hair to the side. she poses in front of a sign that reads: "Azaadiikaa Park"
Megan Schellong
Nichole Keway Biber poses in front of the Azaadiikaa Park sign in East Lansing.

City officials explained the decision helped to maintain access to sewers that cut through the park.

"There are a couple of places that we know that somebody might go out there and say, 'why did they mow this?' And that's just to keep [the area] from becoming forested," said Ron Lacasse, East Lansing's Deputy Director of Public Works.

The incident has been a learning lesson for future planning. East Lansing’s Parks, Recreation and Arts Director Cathy DeShambo is crafting the framework for the park's development.

"What kind of more sustainable intentional planting could we do that would actually create some native areas that could be naturalized in that area?" said Deshambo.

Deshambo said the parks department has an ongoing effort to restore native plants in other areas of Azaadiikaa Park. East Lansing's Environmental Stewardship Program has been running for several years, removing harmful invasive plant species and replacing them with local vegetation.

"We actually have a mini tree nursery with native trees that we plant throughout our parks," Deshambo said. "And we've been very focused on native and pollinator friendly landscaping throughout the city."

Deshambo said the city is committed to working with park advocates.

"It's really important in this park and other parks that community removal of invasive species is something that allows folks to come into the park and grow a new connection," Deshambo said.

Still, activists like Keway Biber want to see a comprehensive plan that outlines funding and resources to revitalize the area's native plants so more people can enjoy all of what Azaadiikaa Park has to offer.

Azaadiikaa Park's Northern Tier Trail in the summer shows a river with green grasses on the side. The sky is blue and there are white clouds interspersed throughout the sky.
Megan Schellong
This is the Northern Tier Trail in the summer. There's a river that runs through it and the trees and grasses are vibrant green during the warm months.

Despite its size, some residents are still discovering the 130-acre park.

"It's pretty cool. I like that it has shade. Especially because it's so warm out," said MSU student Bella Beemer, who was walking Azaadiikaa Park's trail for the first time with a friend.

"And it’s got a good mix of paved versus not paved trails," she added.

Ramiro Lopez was out at the park for a run and said he appreciates the peaceful, outdoor atmosphere.

"I like this trail because it’s very quiet. There is a lot of trees," said Lopez. "Sometimes I bring my son and we do bike riding."

image shows a trail lined with fallen leaves. there is grass on both sides and the trail is lined with trees.
Megan Schellong
This is a section of the Northern Tier Trail of Azaadiika Park in East Lansing.

To keep Azaadiikaa Park a place of solitude and escape for all creatures great and small, Keway Biber said humans have a responsibility to be stewards of the environment.

"We are dependent upon all of this. We were the last ones to arrive," said Keway Biber. "Dbaadendiziwin is when we carry ourselves in humility,"

Keway Biber remains hopeful that Azaadiikaa Park's biodiversity improves, taking another look up to the sky, listening to the buzzing of the bees and chirping of the birds flourishing among the cottonwood trees.

Megan Schellong hosted and produced Morning Edition on WKAR from 2021 to 2024.
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