A bird's eye view of a person steering a canoe.
A group composed primarily of tribal members rented a remotely operated vehicle and lowered it from a canoe last fall to take photographs documenting the condition of the pipeline. They found much more. Credit: Philip Hutchinson / Courtesy

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The discovery of a potential archaeological site in the Straits of Mackinac last fall has opened the door for a Michigan tribe to pursue a new, longshot legal strategy to stop the planned Line 5 pipeline tunnel project.

The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians passed a resolution in January instructing its historic preservation office to begin compiling research for an application to classify the straits as a Traditional Cultural Property, a rarely used federal designation under the National Register of Historic Places.

The status is designed to preserve places associated with often-intangible elements of a local community’s cultural history — in this case, a set of boulders arranged in apparently deliberate lines and semi-circles that might be remnants of a 10,000-year-old caribou-hunting culture.

The designation would add fresh uncertainty to the future of Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, which already faces an order from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to shut down by next month. Tribal leaders are hopeful their request will be considered under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American ever to hold the position, but similar attempts by opponents of other pipeline projects, including the Dakota Access, have been unsuccessful.

“This opens the door for us,” Andrea Pierce said of her tribe’s resolution. “It shows that we’re speaking out as our own sovereign nation. We need to make our voices heard in this political arena.”

Pierce is chair of the Anishinaabek Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party and helped organize a group composed primarily of tribal members whose discovery called attention to the artifacts beneath the straits.

Enbridge’s Line 5 has crossed along the bottom of the straits since 1953, carrying crude oil and natural gas liquids from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario. Concerns about the safety of Line 5 in the straits were heightened in 2010 after a spill from Enbridge’s Line 6B pumped up to 1 million gallons of crude oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

“That would not be acceptable in the Straits of Mackinac,” said Pierce, whose tribe has relied on the region’s freshwater resources for at least 1,500 years. “And that’s where I’m at. I have to protect the straits as best as I can.”

The group organized by Pierce last fall rented a remotely operated vehicle and lowered it from a 32-foot canoe to take photographs documenting the condition of the pipeline. They found much more: a potentially significant archaeological site in the path of a proposed tunnel to house a rebuilt pipeline.

John O’Shea, a leading Great Lakes archaeologist and professor at the University of Michigan, made similar findings beneath Lake Huron in 2014. He linked those findings to caribou hunters after the last ice age, when lake levels dropped dramatically. He said the group’s findings in the straits share striking similarities.

“What we think we’re seeing is a particular adaptation to an ice age environment,” O’Shea said. “Topographically, the straits are a prime place for these kinds of sites.”

Lines of boulders were used to guide caribou during migration, while semi-circle structures served as hunting blinds large enough for two to three people, according to O’Shea. His research team is eager to take a closer look at the findings, and O’Shea commended the group of non-scientists for identifying the site.

“It was a great thing for them to do; it drew public attention to the possibility that there’s something there,” said O’Shea, adding that Enbridge’s proposed tunnel project could disturb or destroy cultural artifacts that might be present.

The group searching for the cultural site in the Straits of Mackinac. Credit: Scott Wyzlic / Courtesy

Examples of existing Traditional Cultural Properties include Kuchamma (Tecate) Peak in California, a sacred mountain associated with the Kumeyaay Indians; Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts, for its importance to the Wampanoag tribes of Cape Cod; and the Bassett Grove Ceremonial Grounds in Oklahoma, the site of Seneca and Cayuga Indian ceremonies since 1832.

Traditional Cultural Properties “are rooted in a traditional community’s history and are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community,” according to the National Park Service’s guide to preserving Native American cultural sites.

While a site’s listing as a Traditional Cultural Property wouldn’t eliminate the possibility of development, it would require that cultural significance is taken into account when state or federal agencies review a proposed project. 

That would give opponents new grounds to argue against the project, especially pertinent after a Michigan judge ruled that climate change and “the public need for Line 5” were legally irrelevant to the tunnel’s permitting process.

Enbridge is in the permitting process for a tunnel encasing Line 5, buried up to 100 feet beneath the lakebed. The $500 million project was proposed by Enbridge as a safety measure to contain potential spills.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy told the Energy News Network in an email that “the Great Lakes Tunnel will be built well below the Straits, and will not impact the lakebed or anything on the lakebed.”

“Our desire is to work with tribal Historic Preservation Offices to identify sensitive cultural sites and artifacts, and together plan for their protection,” Duffy said.

At Standing Rock, a similar effort by Dakota Access opponents was unsuccessful at stopping the project. Despite the identification of 82 cultural features and 27 graves along the pipeline’s corridor, the area was graded and construction of the pipeline proceeded as planned.

The Little Traverse Bay Bands are hopeful they will fare better with Haaland heading the Department of the Interior. Once the tribe’s research is compiled, it will be submitted to the Interior and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.