Stateside Podcast: Finding meaning in Michigan’s petroglyphs
Near Cass City, in the Thumb region, lies the largest collection of petroglyphs in Michigan. The Sanilac Petroglyphs might be off the beaten path, but they're worth the trip.
The carvings were made hundreds of years ago by early Indigenous people. Today, the site is part of the Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park. The name of the park in Anishinaabemowin is ezhibiigaadek asin, which means “knowledge written on stone.”
The exact date of the carvings is unknown, but experts estimate them to be between 300 and 1,500 years old.
“This is a sacred site for the Native Americans, and they might have come here for doing their ceremonies or for teaching,” said Jillian Talaski, a seasonal interpreter at the park. “And they also might have used this place as sort of a meeting place.”
The large sandstone bedrock is protected under a wooden pavilion near the Cass River. It’s 35 feet long, 15 feet wide, and less than 2 feet high. Until 1881, Talaski said, the petroglyphs were overgrown with thick forest brush. Native Americans living in the Thumb were forced off their lands, and the stone carvings remained hidden from European settlers until massive forest fires swept through the region, uncovering the carvings.
“So who knew? The largest collection of Anishinaabe teachings carved in stone is in a farm field now. Floodplain forest in Sanilac County, in the Thumb. It blows people's minds,” said Stacy Tchorzynski, an archeologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Part of that surprise is probably tied to the Sanilac petroglyphs’ location off the beaten path in a rural region of the state. But, Tchorzynski said, it also has to do with how little many of us know about the Indigenous history of Michigan.
“This is not what people think about when they think about the Thumb. I don't think, you know, we always do a good job of teaching ourselves or each other time depth in Michigan, and how long Anishinaabe have been in Michigan, and that just rich, deep history.”
The Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park is around 240 acres and was purchased by the Michigan Archaeological Soceity in the 1960s. The group then donated the land to the state of Michigan. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is now co-managed by The DNR, the Michigan History Center and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. It’s a first of its kind partnership focused on preservation and inclusive interpretation, said Tchorzynski.
The carvings are believed to hold important information, like creation and prophecy stories that have been passed down through generations. Spiral motifs are found numerous times carved into the sandstone rock. A cluster of different carvings shows a human figure in the center, a representation of a bird on the left, handprints, and birds in flight.
Once a year the DNR and the tribe invite the public to a ceremony in honor of the petroglyphs. On a recent warm summer day, Punkin Shananaquet shared the significance of the site to the Anishinaabe people.
“I would say it was a vast spiritual place where our people were brought to learn for a whole summer, and be in ceremony with the best and brightest Anishinaabe individuals in the Great Lakes. And that they would learn and decipher from these. And some of them would travel to the stars and bring back that knowledge, and some of them would travel into the earth and bring back that knowledge. And they would able to put this beautiful story of creation together for us.”
Shananaquet is a tribal leader and member of the Lynx Clan of the Gun Lake Tribe, whose tribal headquarters are located in Shelbyville, MI. On the day we visited, a group of adults and children alike sat in lawn chairs listening closely to her words.Shananaquet invited them to pick fern leaves from the nearby forest and lay them around the perimeter of the rock.
“Place these ferns around her,” she instructed the visitors. “And we are going to dress her and get her ready for her work.”
The work she says is the ceremony honoring this place and the spirits that protect it.
Bonnie Kirkegard was one of the guests participating in the ceremony. She grew up in the Thumb, and her grandfather was an amateur archeologist who wrote about the petroglyphs and donated his collection of artifacts to the park.
“Because he had wrote the article, we wanted to come and see a little bit more about it. And it was just lucky that it happened today because we got even a better story than we ever thought we could get on our own. So it has been a really good day.”
Shananaquet said that having the context and interpretation from the Anishinaabe perspective is important both for visitors and for the Indigenous people whose ancestors carved the petroglyphs.
“To have it in the language, have it be done with ceremony, have it be recognized as a as an and an entity as a living spiritual being that's alive and breathing. You know, it becomes it becomes part of us. It goes into our memory, our blood, our muscle. Our truth.”
One of the most popular petroglyphs in the park is a figure of an archer, known in Anishinaabemowin as ebmodaakowet. The figure’s body is an arrow, as is his hat, and he holds a bow and arrow in his hands.
“Early on, when archeologists who were not consulting with tribes, you know, saw that, they thought, oh, surely this must be a hunting magic. They took it very literally. ” explained Tchorzynski. “But actually, this ebmodaakowet is actually shooting the arrow of knowledge seven generations into the future. And this was a carving that was left with great love and great affection for descendants in the future, to remind people of our responsibilities to be good ancestors, to preserve and remember, and our obligation to shoot the arrow of knowledge into the future as well. We all must be good ancestors.”
The fragile carvings are easily affected by natural forces. The Marshall sandstone is a very soft rock, and so many of the petroglyphs have faded naturally throughout the centuries. Over the years, the petroglyphs have also been damaged by human hands. Parts of them have been vandalized, and pieces of the stone have been chipped away and taken. In order to protect the carvings from degrading over time, a wooden pavilion was erected over the site. A rope now separates visitors from the rock.
The DNR, the tribe, and other partners are looking to revamp the site in the near future, Tchorzynski said.
“This wooden pavilion, open sided pavilion that has really been of great service over the decades. But we are we just finished writing and co-writing with the tribe and with a comment from members of the public, a brand new ten year master plan for the park. So we're going to be rethinking this structure, some other interpretive things we want to do.”
One of the most exciting projects is a collaboration with the Michigan Department of Transportation to digitally capture and create 3D models of the carvings so that they can be preserved for generations to come. They plan to rescan the rocks every five years to also monitor the preservation of the rock over time.
While it’s been important to preserve the carvings in digital form, there is something special about being in person at ezhibiigaadek asin and experiencing the petroglyphs in their original context. In the past, Tchorzynski said, some people worried about the preservation of the petroglyphs considered plans to “chip out the best of them” and take the fragments to a museum.
“Thank goodness that never happened because this is, it's in its context. It's in its original landscape. This is here for a reason. And it's connected to the water and the plant life and the animals and the whole floodplain forest. So it's not just the rock that, you know, has this significance. It's this entire landscape. So if you can, we encourage you to walk the trail and think about the teachings on the rock, but think about how that might affect your relationship with the entire landscape.”