By Kathleen Lavey, Lansing State Journal
Cass City, MI (AP) – 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.
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 the future.
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.
The Lansing State Journal (http://on.lsj.com/28Laqkr ) reports that 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.
“They placed important and spiritual knowledge on the landscape in a permanent way for us and generations well into the future,’’ she said.
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.
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.
“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, in 2012.
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.’’
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 public.
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, Martin said.
“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 remain.’’
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 practices require.
“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.’’
Photos: The Archer, at Sanilac Petroglyph Park; A visitor at the Park views protected carvings; A view of the Cass River