CASS CITY - In a discarded pile of garish yellow plastic chain
the cheapest possible option to keep people away from things
they're not supposed to touch Stacy Tchorzynski spied a little
piece of red printed fabric wrapped around an offering of tobacco.
Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)
She picked it up and carefully untied it from the chain, which
until this day had been used to keep people from stepping on the
low dome of sandstone, carved hundreds of years ago with images
sacred to Great Lakes Native American tribes.
There is Ebmodaakowet, the archer who shoots knowledge into
There is Migizi Inini, the Eagle Man, who looks to the east
the direction of the new day and flies over to ensure
people are following traditions and teachings.
There is Mishibizhew, the water panther, who protects the waters
of the Great Lakes.
There are other sacred shapes and symbols, surrounded by a clutter
of carvings that likely came much later: initials scratched by 19th
century loggers, other graffiti, bowl-like indentations where someone,
somewhere in history, chipped out an entire symbol and the rock
around it so they could take it home.
Tchorzynski laid the tiny bundle down next to a pile of others,
which will be saved for ceremonial burning. In time, new offerings
will be tied onto the new cedar railings going in around the rock
at Sanilac Petroglyphs State Park. The offering of tobacco, or asemma,
is an acknowledgment of the carvings and of all that people take
from the earth.
Stacy Tchorzynski talks about the history of the petroglyphs
at Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park May 24, 2016 in
Cass City. (Photo: Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)
A growing partnership aims to recognize both the archaeological
significance as well as its cultural and spiritual importance to
Great Lakes Native American tribes.
"It's one of the most unique places in the entire region," said
Tchorzynski, an archaeologist with the state Historic Preservation
Office and the Michigan Historical Center. "There are moral, cultural
and spiritual and environmental lessons embedded in these carvings."
The 240-acre park was created in 1970 to preserve the carvings,
which are Michigan's largest known concentration of petroglyphs,
or Native American carvings into rocks. Other Great Lakes sites
include the Jeffers site in Minnesota and a collection of carvings
in Peterborough, Ontario. The Sanilac petroglyphs, smack in the
center of the Thumb, are the centerpiece in Michigan's least-visited
historic state park, drawing about 4,500 visitors last year.
That number could soon go up, thanks to a cooperative effort
to make the area more attractive and present its history and cultural
significance in a more comprehensive way. Those involved in the
effort include the DNR, state Office of Historic Preservation, and
members of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe.
On that recent Tuesday, Tchorzynski was at the park to work
on installation of new cedar railings, decorated with a floral design,
and new signs that describe the cultural and spiritual significance
of the spot in both English and Anishinabemowin, the native word
for the Chippewa language. A digital scan of the rock also is planned
to preserve and record the carvings as they are today.
But getting here has been a long road.
Lessons from the past
It's likely that the petroglyphs, known as ezhibiigaadek asin
or "written in stone," were carved 600 to 1,000 years ago, according
to William Johnson, who leads the cultural resource management at
the Ziibiwing Center, a museum and learning facility operated by
the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe in Mount Pleasant. He's also interim
tribal historic preservation officer.
Petroglyphs are one of many ways previous generations of Anishnabe
people left information for the future, said Shannon Martin, director
of the Ziibiwing Center. Others include pictographs, or paintings
on rocks; birch bark scrolls handed down through generations; and
effigy earth mounds, huge mounds in stylized animal or symbol shapes
used for burial or storage caches and once common throughout Michigan
and the Midwest.
Ostrander, with the Michigan Historical Center, and Nate Valley,
with Michigan Department of Natural Resources, install a new
barrier around the petroglyphs at the Sanilac Petroglyphs
Historic State Park May 24, 2016 in Cass City. (Photo: Dave
Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)
"They placed important and spiritual knowledge on the landscape
in a permanent way for us and generations well into the future,"
The Sanilac carvings, on a low, flat outcropping of soft Marshall
sandstone near the banks of the Cass River, were lost to history
for some time during the 19th century, overgrown with brush in the
river's flood plain and surrounded by farmland.
That corresponds with the 19th century period of cultural trauma
as white settlers pushed Native Americans into assimilation and
onto reservations, sometimes by force.
"Our ancestors, through our prophecies, knew that there would
be at least three generations that would struggle to maintain and
to retain our culture," Martin said. "During that time, the spirit
rock was dormant and sleeping. This was a time when we as Anishinabe
were under great duress and trouble."
The carvings lie in the historical territory of the Saginaw
Chippewa, but are part of the history and tradition of Michigan's
51 Native American tribes and bands, Johnson said. Anishinabe is
how the Chippewa refer to themselves and other native peoples.
Various tribes and bands would gather in the Thumb during the
summers, Martin said.
"They would live and reside and gather from all points
to share in harvesting," she said. "The place was just
teeming with ducks, pigeons, cranberries and wild rice. And the
sacred stone was there."
The rock was discovered by European settlers after an 1881 forest
fire swept across two-thirds of the Thumb, killing nearly 300 people
and consuming trees, brush and homes.
Archaeologists have studied the site since the 1920s, making
plaster casts and using onion-skin paper to make rubbings of the
carvings. Some of those are now in the collection at Cranbrook Institute
of Science. In the 1940s, Cranbrook's director Robert Hatt worked
with University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology and the DNR
to create a plan to preserve the carvings. One of the suggestions:
Turn the site into a state park.
In 1966, the Michigan Archaeological Society bought 80 acres
containing the petroglyphs; the additional property was added later.
It donated the land to the state with the caveat that the petroglyphs
be preserved and available to the public.
Preserve and protect
Marshall sandstone is soft. That makes it easy to carve, but
also means that those carvings are susceptible to erosion. Wind,
water, the freeze-thaw cycle of winter wear them down. So do human
or animal touch.
Since the early 1980s, the rock that bears the carvings has
been protected under a circular, open-air pavilion; in the winter
it's wrapped in an insulating material to keep snow and ice off
of the rock as much as possible.
time passersby, including many loggers, have carved their
initials into the sandstone at the Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic
State Park near Cass City. (Photo: Dave Wasinger/Lansing State
But there's no perfect way to protect a piece of sandstone like
this one. The shade created by the pavilion allows the growth of
lichen, tiny plants that turn the stone green and create tiny fissures
with their roots. Birds and bats that roost in the rafters of the
pavilion leave droppings on it.
Trees around the pavilion were trimmed last year to let more
light reach the rock; gutters also were improved to channel water
away from the base of the enclosure. This year, a conservation consultant
will be hired to evaluate the site and discuss other measures that
can be taken.
"We're looking at how to care for the rock itself, what
kind of shelter it needs, what kind of light it needs," Tchorzynski
said. "We'll balance that technical knowledge with what the
tribe needs. It's a balance between technical and cultural preservation."
A tall chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, surrounds
the rock to keep vandals out, but that also limits access for those
who would like to make a spiritual visit.
Ostrander, with the Michigan Historical Center, takes down
an old sign warning visitors to stay off the rocks at the
Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park. The petroglyphs were
carved 600 to 1,000 years ago. (Photo: Dave Wasinger/Lansing
"For now, when we want to go there and have a ceremony, we have
to apply for a permit," Martin said. The state has worked with the
tribe to accommodate requests to honor the site.
But over the past five years, the state, the tribe and the Michigan
Archaeological Society have worked together to try to create new
ways to manage the site and present information there.
Martin gives Tchorzynski credit for starting that effort, when
she sought out Martin, Johnson and Sonya Atalay, an expert in indigenous
archaeology, at a nationwide archaeology meeting in Memphis, Tennessee,
Tchorzynski had recently been hired by the state of Michigan
and was working on a doctoral dissertation about the Sanilac site.
Something happened that day, Martin said. Groups whose goals
were occasionally at odds began to work together.
"Now we're writing grants together to provide funding to maintain
and enhance the entire property," she said. "It's an amazing relationship
and it's continuing to grow."
The first official tribal gathering in decades was held at the
site in July 2002. Martin recalls it as exhilarating.
"We camped out there for four days and kept the sacred fire
burning," she said. "We had teachings and individuals coming to
talk about some of the carvings on the rock and there was a sweat
lodge. We did that as a reconnection to the site."
offerings are tied to a fence surrounding the petroglyphs.
The offerings, according to archaeologist Stacy Tchorzynski,
were left by Native Americans for whom the petroglyphs are
a spiritual site. (Photo: Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)
Currently, the Saginaw Chippewa tribe now hosts annual spring
and fall events at the site. The next one, on June 25, involves
a spring cleaning of the rock, where in which women rinse it with
water from the nearby Cass River. Tradition calls for sweeping the
rock with cedar boughs, but now the water is imbued with cedar to
protect the stone from the scratching of boughs. It's open to the
Native Americans see the site as part of a living tradition,
a place to be used. It wouldn't be out of the question for a Native
American spiritual leader to use tools to restore a weathered image,
"With archaeologists, they just start twitching when you talk
about re-etching," Martin said. "If we were to go there and use
that place as our ancestors intended for us to see it and learn
from it, we would have spiritual people and teachers on the rock
with teaching sticks, talking about those carvings and re-etching
so that it continues to be alive and those teachings would always
For now, no re-etching is in the works.
Instead, the tribe and the state will continue to work together
to improve the site and preserve the carvings while making them
as accessible as possible to both Native Americans and other visitors.
New signs containing explanations of the cultural and spiritual
significance of the rock have replaced those that contained information
only about their archaeological significance. Bridges on the mile-long
trail at the site will be replaced this year. A permanent fire pit
has been discussed to accommodate the sacred fires that spiritual
"We remain hopeful and excited about the future," Martin said.
"There is more attention that is being given to that beautiful place,
not only from our own people but from those who are entrusted to
take care of it, and there are definitely better relationships now."
If you go
- The Petroglyphs are open for viewing 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday
Sunday through Labor Day. Call ahead to confirm hours and
dates. The archaeological site also may be available for a special
viewing at other times via a use permit. Call (989) 856-4411 and
ask to speak to the park supervisor. The rest of the park contains
a one mile hiking trail that crosses the Little Cass River in
- The park is at 8251 Germania Road near Cass City. That's
about 2 1/2 hours from Lansing.
- A community cultural teaching, sponsored by the Ziibiwing
Center, takes place 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 25 at the petroglyphs
- Learn more at www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails/details.aspx?id=490&type=SPRK.
- Learn more about the Ziibiwing Center at www.sagchip.org/ziibiwing.