In a rural area of Michigan’s Thumb region, a small state park preserves a collection of sandstone carvings that date back many hundreds of years. One of the carvings, a figure with a bow and arrow, symbolizes ancestors shooting their knowledge ahead seven generations.
Some might say that arrow landed in 2019.
That year, descendants of those stone carvers, members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, signed an agreement with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to co-manage Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park. The tribe’s knowledge is once again steering stewardship of the landscape where the carvings were discovered.
The partnership has helped state managers better understand the petroglyphs’ meanings (they formerly referred to the archer figure as “the hunter”). The tribe and state have produced interpretive signs with phrases in the Anishinabemowin language, and they’ve used laser measuring techniques to create digital models of the carvings. They’re now collaborating to build a ceremonial teaching lodge.
“We basically make all decisions together now,” said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center, a division of the state agency. “The more we learn about our partners, their culture and their beliefs, the more that gets filtered into how we talk about this.”
For tribal leaders, the agreement is the next chapter in a legacy that dates back millennia — and a step toward restoring the site’s role as an important regional gathering place.
“We are very proud to be stewards of the land for all this time,” said Willie Johnson, director of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, a museum and cultural center overseen by the tribe. “People from all over the Great Lakes region come to be part of it; it’s a true sacred site where people gather to learn about the history of the Anishinabe people.”
The collaboration in Michigan is part of a growing movement to restore tribes’ role in managing the lands and waters within their ancestral territories. Proponents note that many of America’s most cherished public lands were established only after the displacement of the Indigenous people who called them home.
“We’re seeing the expansion of these collaborative relationships,” said Monte Mills, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington. “Tribal nations are having engagement, influence and authority in the way these public lands are being managed.”
Such collaborations, known as co-management or co-stewardship, range from pledges to consult with tribes to full-fledged partnerships that give tribal leaders an equal seat on governing commissions. While praising such efforts generally, Native leaders say the agreements have been a mixed bag in terms of granting real authority to tribes.
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