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  • Pontiac’s Ghost in the Motor CityIndigeneity and the Discursive Construction of Modern Detroit
  • Kyle T. Mays (bio)


To local Detroiters and throughout the United States, the name Pontiac holds many meanings. Most know about the name of the now discontinued General Motors automobile. A quick Google search of “Pontiac” reveals, first, the General Motors brand and, then, the city Pontiac, Michigan. The third “Pontiac” subject that emerges is the Odawa war chief who helped stage an epic battle against the British in 1763. Perhaps it sounds bizarre to state the obvious, but Pontiac the man, the historical figure, preceded the vehicle and the city. On the eve of an auto revolution, Detroiters in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century knew about Pontiac the historical figure, in the form of “Pontiac’s conspiracy.”

For instance, in 1872 an article proclaimed that Pontiac “made himself so prominent that his name will be remembered by Detroiters for a hundred years to come.”1 Similarly, in 1899, one local wrote, “Before the white man’s foot had trodden the wilderness where now stand thriving and populous cities and while the red man still held undisputed sway over the territory in the region the great lakes, the name Pontiac was a familiar and honored word.”2 An article in 1913 wrote of Pontiac’s importance to local Detroit legends, “a name, next to a mound of earth, is one of the most persistent things in the world.”3 Pontiac was an important part of Detroit’s presence in the late nineteenth century and beyond. But now, Pontiac the man exists mostly as a ghost of Detroit’s past. What accounts for this?

In contemporary Detroit, one would be hard-pressed to find any traces of Indigenous people and their history. Unless you have Indigenous relatives [End Page 115] there, it is unlikely you would associate Detroit with indigeneity; you would likely be more familiar with Motown, factories, labor and unions, Black and white relations, and the fact that post-1967-Rebellion Detroit is a predominantly Black American city.4 Even within scholarship on twentieth century Detroit, Indigenous people rarely come into the discussion unless it is in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or early nineteenth centuries. And if you are familiar with colonial American history, histories of the British and French Empires or Native histories in the Midwest, you have surely heard of Pontiac’s so-called conspiracy.

I am an urban Indigenous historian who writes on Detroit with family ties to the city. In a broad sense, my aim is to understand how and why Indigenous people have been erased from Detroit’s present, and to recover and reinsert those narratives into Detroit’s history, narratives like that of my Saginaw Chippewa great-grandmother and my aunt, Judy Mays, who founded the third-ever public school with a Native American curriculum in Detroit over twenty-years ago. They were well-respected activists among postwar Detroit’s Indigenous community.5 In this sense, I desire to know, how and why have Native people been erased from Detroit’s present? But in order to do this, I go back much earlier to unpack the genealogy of the processes of Indigenous erasure in the Motor City; it is important to look back and find key moments and people, those who had a lasting impact on the city’s history, to appreciate such a phenomenon.

I turn to the Odawa war chief Pontiac, who organized Indigenous people in 1763 in order to drive out, once and for all, the British Empire from the North American continent. There are numerous studies on Pontiac.6 According to historian Gregory Evans Dowd’s excellent analysis of Pontiac’s War, the major reason that caused the conflict was that Native people believed the British planned to enslave them; dispossession at that time was a theoretical belief, but not an assumed outcome. As Dowd argues, “the Indians’ determination to resist slavery, voiced as frequently as their determination to defend their lands, has been largely overlooked probably because history did not so thoroughly bear out predictions of enslavement as it did those of dispossession.”7 My aim is not...


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