Mino-giizhigad; Maazhi-giizhigad: The Marji Gesick


Mino-giizhigad; Maazhi-giizhigad: The Marji Gesick

Credit: 906 Adventure Team. Cable, age 9, carving out his legacy.

(It’s a good day; it’s a bad day)

Shakespeare insisted that a name held nothing significant; in fact, a name is but an arbitrary designator. A rose,  “by any other name would smell as sweet.” If the rose weren’t called a rose, we would still swoon over the sweet smell. Poor Juliet, the owner of a smitten young heart, failed to see everything that exists in a name. In my case, at thirty years old, I still carry my maiden name. Instead, I like to say it’s the name I’ve made for myself; I don’t see that changing any time soon. I grew up in the trailer park across the street from the General Motors Factory in Janesville, Wisconsin, and attended Jackson Elementary school. It was there I celebrated Andrew Jackson as a glorious president; Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. What’s in that name? A legacy of brutality*, I say.

*Yes, this is a reference to the 1985 album by the Misfits. Hybrid moments is one of my favorite songs of all time.

I believe that there is a legacy in the name; a name is what we make it. I was Alex for years, ambiguous, unsure of myself. It wasn’t until I began to own my history that I started going by my given name. Alexandera, with the extra “e.”  It was the name I was given; it’s up to me to leave the legacy behind.

I find this especially true when it comes to naming bike races. When we choose to name a race, it reveals just how in touch we are with the land it traverses. What is the history of this place? The land knows a different story than either you or I. In choosing a name; it reveals the amount of energy we put into the legacy we wish to leave behind. We get few chances to create a legacy, let alone see one blossom.

Just on the hillside of the lake my ancestors have called home for quite some time, Gichigami, there is a bike race hosted by a man I call Zanagendam-inini. It’s a forested hillside chock-full of miles of some of the country’s best singletrack I’ve ridden. I’m probably biased. It smells like home. The humidity is crippling; the punchy climbs are paralyzing. That race stole my heart; The Marji Gesick, 100-miles of pure trying. My first go at the Marji, I rode my beloved Rastro 27.5, heavy as hell, but I used that bike to win the women’s field in the 2018 Tour Divide; it was the only bike I had at the time, and I wholeheartedly believe—run what ya brung, bro.

The Marji is nothing like the Tour Divide. It’s more than a hundred miles of zig-zagging, up and down, over soggy tree roots covered in slippery moss and navigating through sharp, sketchy rocks. When the night comes, the wooden bridges over cricks are invisible, and you crash 40-times… an hour. It’s mountain biking at it’s finest. 12,000 feet of climbing in a century. You never climb for more than a few minutes and never descend long enough to catch your breath.

If you finish sub 12 hours, you earn a coveted belt buckle. No woman has done it in the bike edition yet; Carey Lowery, ultimate badass, was real close one year. I’d foolishly thought I had it in me. Earlier that year, I’d pedaled the Arizona Trail in late May (I will never do that again) and raced the Colorado Trail Race, taking second in the women’s race. I thought nothing could be harder than those races. I was way, way wrong…

Credit: 906 Adventure Team, Adventure Bike Club… hard work and fun are not mutually exclusive. 

I’d heard a word like that before— giizhik, the Ojibwemowin (the language of the Ojibwe) word for cedar. Hey— maybe there is a connection to Ojibwe? I wondered what the Marji was really all about. A few days before I headed to Ishpeming, the Ojibwemowin word for heaven, or way way up there high in the sky, I opted to investigate the origin of the namesake for this race.

It wasn’t particularly easy to find much information on Marji Gesick— I wasn’t a local and didn’t know that he was even a person. I googled “Marji Gesick,” and all I could find was information about the race. My google search was exactly “Marji Gesick -race -bike -906 -nue -results -strava -facebook” by the time found anything of historical significance. Anything easy ain’t worth having, I enjoy digging to find the truth.

I found historical documents citing him, Marji Gesick, as either Matji-gigig (Bad Day) or Man-je-ki-jik (Moving Day). I presume the first cited name comes from maazhi, meaning “bad” and giizhig, meaning “day.” English translations of Ojibwe words spell them the way they sound; Mississippi, gichi-ziibi, meaning the great river, is derived from Ojibwemowin, as is the name Moose, mooz; without hearing the dialect, some of the words are indistinguishable from each other. So for the rest of this article, I am going to call him, Marji Gesick, Man-je-ki-jik, because that’s the name I found in the oldest document I read.

Man-je-ki-jik was a man who came from an “important local family” A common practice by the U.S. government opted to lend the title of “chief” to Indian men who possessed roles of leadership—he was recognized as such by government officials because many of his relatives were known as “local headmen.” There’s no evidence, however, as his role as an ogimaa (chief). It’s unclear as to his band affiliation, too; research only mentions he was an Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) man.

The story, as I have discovered it to be, started with a person (Dr. Jackson) who had obtained “a fine specimen of specular iron ore” that had been given to a fur trader by an Indian chief. This Indian chief knew about a mountain of ore “somewhere between the head of Keweenaw bay and the headwaters of the Menominee river…”. Unable to find the iron ore on their own, prospectors sought the help of Man-je-ki-jik.

Photo Credit: Iron Industry Museum. 

In  a document I found from 1876, they state that Jackson Mountain as being “discovered” by members of Philo Everett’s team, after being “guided to the locality by the Indian chief, but the superstition of the savage not allowing him to approach the spot,” left the team to continue forward alone. For the help he provided to the Jackson Mining Company for leading them to the place of iron reserves, he received “12/3100 of the shares in the location…”. In reports crafted during the trial, he was deemed “ignorant and unlettered” Because he would only use English if he had to. Not really understanding the significance of this slip of paper, he tucked it away. The 1830s (and onward into the rest of the 19th  century) was a tumultuous time for Indians. After all, this was the time our dear friend Andrew Jackson signed and implemented the Indian Relocation Act.  Many of the Ojibwe that had been in the Upper Peninsula at that time were likely relocated or opted to move on their own accord.

After dying somewhere between 1860 and 1862, his daughter Charlotte Kawbawgam found that little slip of paper in his belongings that had these words inscribed:

This may certify that in consideration of the services rendered by Marji Gesick, Chippewa Indian, in hunting ores of location No. 503 of the Jackson Mining Company that he is entitled to twelve undivided thirty-one-hundredths part of the interest of said mining company in said location No. 503.

[Signed] A.V. Berry, Pres. J.W. Kirtland, Secy.

At a time when Indians weren’t even considered citizens of the United States (that didn’t happen until 1924, and some couldn’t even vote until 1957), Man-je-ki-jik became “one of the early fee owners of the district when the Jackson Mining Co. rewarded him with interest”. However, this “certificate” of ownership was never fulfilled during his lifetime, though in the 1850’s he apparently attempted to claim his “reward.” The Jackson Mining Company struggled in the early years and found that they had little to offer him

It wasn’t until his daughter, Charlotte, approached the Jackson Mining Company, saying she was the only heir of Man-je-ki-jik (all of his other children had died before him) that defense attorneys argued he’d already received compensation in the form of other “services.” They ultimately refused to honor the certificate because, at the time of Charlotte’s birth, Man-je-ki-jik was “married” to three women. Marriage among Ojibwe was much different than we understand it to be now. It was customary for men to have several wives and women to have several husbands. Additionally, either partner was able to separate from the marriage.

Polygamy wasn’t recognized under Michigan law, and by virtue of that law, the Jackson Mining Company argued they didn’t have to acknowledge Charlotte as an heir because she was an illegitimate child. This was also a time when Indians were perceived as “poor, “ignorant,” and thus unaware of their rights”. The consensus by the attorneys on the Jackson Mine defense argued that the claim had gone “stale,” a “legal principle that can prevent the adjudication of even legitimate claims if the complainant has failed to pursue the matter within a reasonable period of time”. This, in turn, generated much rhetoric as to “whether traditional Native people should be held to the same standards of judicial promptness as Euro-Americans.” So, after being rejected multiple times, in 1871, she went ahead and retained a lawyer. Part of the power of her defense was built on the fact that she pursued payment outside of litigation, on more than one occasion, before she retained a lawyer. This proved that she was aware of her rights, which was contrary to the societal consensus. The only evidence the defense had against honoring this certificate was that Charlotte was born to the second wife of Man-je-ki-jik.

Photo of Jack Deos

In order to determine if Charlotte was, in fact, Man-je-ki-jik’s sole heir, the court had to examine the Native American patterns of “family, gender, and marriage relations…” This was often tough for Anglo-Americans to comprehend; Indian family structures were variable and flexible. These bonds formed a fundamental foundation for their everyday life; caring for each other and building societal relationships was imperative for survival.    

This case ended up going on to dissect the legitimacy of traditional tribal people as lifestyles began to shift. Since this litigation took place some 40 years after Man-je-ki-jik had received his certificate, legitimizing Indian marriage from a different time, under Anglo law, was no easy task.

In the end, in 1889, the court concluded that, since the marriage was recognized under Ojibwe law, by a sovereign entity, that Charlotte was rightfully Man-je-ki-jik’s heir, therefore rightfully inherited his ownership in the Jackson Iron Company. This is significant because tribal law always trumps state law. It is recognized as a landmark case in Federal Indian Law; it affirms tribal sovereignty.

The reason I share this story with you is that without understanding our history, we are doomed to repeat ourselves. When Zanagendam-inini chose Marji Gesick as the name of the mountain bike race, he acknowledged the history of the land through an indigenous perspective. When we acknowledge the determination of those who lived before us, we honor their legacies. For the Ojibwe, in fact for all Indian Nations,  the 1800s was a time of significant change and displacement that still has impacts today.

I’d love to go into detail about my DNF in the inaugural 200+ mile Marji Out-n-Back. But, this story isn’t about me; it’s about the people behind race that are doing things a little differently.

I’ve pedaled my bike all over the country, and my forever favorite place will be alongside the Yoopers. Because, what they are building up there is what a tribe does, and when we belong to a tribe we find ourselves. We become accountable, we are supported, and we learn how to work toward the bigger picture; the self is only as good as he or she can give back to their community, whatever community that is. This reciprocity provides support and empowerment for each other to leave behind a legacy they can be proud of.  The Marji is just one of the events they put on. First, and foremost, they build community.

The following picture is a photo of Will. Where there’s a Will, there’s a way. “He crashed (again) and sat on the ground defeated… He pounded the ground and kept saying ‘I suck!’ I laid it out for him: You don’t suck and I don’t want to hear you say it again. You’re not here to feel sorry for yourself, you’re here to get better, which means you need to be willing to fail… and you will repeatedly on your way to improvement. You wanna quit? Fine. Go home and tell yourself you suck there, but don’t do it here. Now get back on your bike and lets keep getting better.”

As a person who finds significant meaning in the history of a place, digging deeper to see who Marji Gesick was, did more than connect me to place, it connected me to the people of now and to the people of then. If the people of the now, the 906 Adventure Team, know that we all must crash and burn on our way to getting better, the people of tomorrow can pass that legacy on. This race proved to me what exists in a name, a legacy.

The legacy of Man-je-ki-jik is the “ultimate story of doing hard things.” Man-je-ki-jik didn’t live to see the impact his story had for Indians today. Still, he was an Anishinaabe we don’t want to forget—and we won’t as long as a bunch of chumps line up in Ishpeming for 12,000 feet of elevation gain, across 100 miles, every Waatebagaa-giizis (September).

Chi-miigwetch 906 Adventure Team. I believe that you are “honoring the toughness, grit, tradition, and significant role Marji played in [the history of] the iron range…”