“In Michigan, Rising Lake Levels Disturb Sacred Ground”

“Along Lake Michigan’s shores, rising waters are eroding Indigenous Odawa burial sites”

“At the shoreline, between lake and land, Melissa Wiatrolik reflects on those who were here before Michigan became Michigan. She had been raised in a community that honored the dead, that understood that their ancestors were always present. As a child, she had watched her own family clean the gravestones of those before her. She had attended ghost suppers to both celebrate and feed the deceased. She had grown up with remembrance, and now, at the shores of Lake Michigan, Wiatrolik worked to keep her ancestors at peace.

Indigenous burial grounds line the Michigan coast. But centuries after the ceremonies that put the dead to rest, their physical remains are making their way back to the people. Each of the five Great Lakes broke monthly high-water records in the last two years, an upwelling that has scoured beaches and bluffs. Erosion from high water levels is not just endangering public infrastructure and private property. Along with a burst of lakeshore construction, it is also pulling up the bones that have long been buried.

“Just this year, the National Park Service from the Sleeping Bear Dunes contacted me due to the erosion down there,” Wiatrolik told Circle of Blue. “There was an ancestor bone found by one of the visitors and they were able to bring it to the office. Good Samaritans, because that does not usually happen. People usually throw it off the side, or throw it in the water. Or keep it.””

Elena Bruess reports for Circle of Blue September 3, 2020.