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Mike Riehls
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August 15, 2013
Oral and visual story telling keeps cultures alive, passes on lessons and inspires generations. One such story board can be found about two hours north of the Grosse Pointes at the Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park. Located in the Thumb, Sanilac County is home to the 15-by-40-by-20-foot Marshall Sandstone rock with 50 carved figures. Marshall Sandstone was created about 340 million years ago when the area was a river delta, according to an informational sign in the state park. The deposits of sand, mud and lime hardened into sandstone. About 12,500 years ago, the mile thick ice began retreating and formed a river bed up to eight miles wide, called the Ubley Channel and revealed the sandstone.

The climate changed making it hospitable to humans. About 500 to 1,650 A.D., the Late Woodland period, the aboriginal people began farming, fishing and hunting, according to a Department of Natural Resources First People's website.

Those first Michiganians harvested what was plentiful, leaving a visual record of what was available, a compass and stories all carved into the soft rock.

A single picture can tell an entire story, establishing the adage "one picture is worth a thousand words." For example, the water panther carved in concentric circles means she is fertile or with child, said Don Beavers, a historic guide with the DNR Parks and Recreation division. The water panther lives at the bottom of the Great Lakes and rivers and defends herself with the spiked tail.

The petroglyphs, Beavers said, were carved between 300 to 1,000 years ago, but by whom, is not known.

"We don't know who the carvers were, but they hunted here for bear, moose, elk and turkey. Because there was no written history, tribes passed their knowledge on through oral stories. The stories are interpretations and can vary from tribe to tribe."

The sandstone carvings, featuring swirls, lines, handprints, flying birds and bow-wielding men, were discovered by residents in 1881 after fire swept through the area.

More than a million acres were burned in one day and 282 people were killed. The American Red Cross responded to its first disaster, having been formed just weeks earlier by Clara Barton. Following that fire, the petroglyphs were discovered. As a side note, a white pine sprouted from the fire's ashes. That live tree can be seen during a mile hike looping through a portion of the 240 acre park. The state acquired the land in 1971. The DNR opened the park July 22, 1978.

The petroglyph rock is covered by a high wooden roof. The open-sided structure is surrounded by a high metal fence. Small prayer bags are tied on both the high fence around the structure and the plastic, yellow link chain guarding the rock signifying a Native Americans' sacred ground.

"Prayer bags are tied to the chain to be close to the spirit," Beavers explained. "The staff won't take them down until they fall to the ground so the prayer won't be interrupted."

The Bay City Indian Education Program brings its students to the site each spring, said Kim Kaufmann, unit supervisor of Sleeper Sate Park, Port Austin State Harbor and the petroglyphs state park.

Both the children and the members of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe regularly visit the rock. Tribal members observe summer solstice here and use the time and area as a teaching ceremony, Kaufmann said.

They place their hands on the rock to become infused with the rock's spirit because Native Americans believe everything has a spirit. They revere the rock's etchings including animal tracks of the wolf or fox lying due north and south and the bird tracks that point due east and west, as proven by a compass, Beavers said. Also carved into the moss-covered smooth rock is a bowman or archer because he not only could provide food for his family, but also was the chief of knowledge.

"This is reminding (the viewer) to shoot the arrow of knowledge into the future," Beavers said. "This is remembering."

With a padded tip pointer, he touches near the bowman.

"The V on the head of the male figure is a headdress or thoughts going into the clouds for future generations to harvest," he explained.

A second human figure also was inscribed into the stone that has been calculated to be between 100 and 150 years later than the first, he said.

Near the larger bowman is a small figure representing the night walker, a benevolent spirit. Beavers reminds his guests again, stories differ between Native American nations.

About four weeks ago, a 29-year-old female listened to Beavers' story of the night walker. Her arms broke out goose bumps and she did a quick shiver having heard a different story from her grandparents about the night walker.

Her grandparents were 100 per cent Navaho and their version was the night walker stole children and clothing during the night.

Circumnavigating the stone, visitors see a second night walker, with feathers coming from its head (indicated by straight lines), near the spiral of life etching. When the spiral ends, life ends and the night walker is there to complete the human's journey.

The menorah-shaped carving is related to the Algonquian.

When the Algonquian chief was about to die, he had to decide which of his three sons showed these virtues: humility, love, bravery, knowledge, respect and courage, as illustrated by the menorah-shaped carving. Unable to decide, he told his sons to create their own tribes, thus the establishment of the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi, the Three Fires.

Beavers continued, there was a prophecy told to those aboriginals about pale people coming on trees pushed by clouds and who "would not be true." All the Native Americans' water and woods would be poisoned and taken away. They would experience great trials, lasting seven generations. According to Beavers, this is the sixth of the seven generations. Once the prophecy is complete, all are to live in peace and harmony. All this has been interpreted from a single carving.

Another carving explains how storms occur due to the animosity of two creatures — the water panther and the thunder bird.

The mythical thunder bird's head, ribs and wings can be seen carved into the sandstone.

Beavers related the thunder bird, with its massive wings could gather all the clouds. It could carry snakes in its beak. It could shoot lightning bolts from its eyes.

There was no love lost between the thunder bird and the water panther, who would whip up her tail in a circle causing the water to rise and return as rain. At the same time, the thunder bird would shoot lightning bolts and gather the clouds, creating a thunderstorm.

The carvings have faded over time and some have been removed, as noted by depressions in the soft sandstone.

No one knows when the carvings were removed, Beavers said, but it was prior to Cranbrook Institute's cataloguing the etchings in the early 1950s. The carvings continue to fade.

There has been a 30 percent loss of the carvings in the past 30 years due to vandalism and fading, Kaufmann said.

The Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park, 8251 Germania, Cass City, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday through Sept. 2. Admission is free.

On the one-mile self-guided tour, visitors see the north branch of the Cass River, the remains of a 19th century logging camp and a century old white pine.

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