Native American cultural trail deepens historical perspective on Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island Native American Cultural History Trail No. 6, with interpretive sign and bicyclist.

Feb. 23, 2017

With hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, Mackinac Island has long been one of Michigan’s favorite vacation destinations.

The island is known for its scenic views – often seen from a bicycle – historic attractions, fudge and horses, but until recently, many visitors did not know about its connection to Native American history and culture.

“Mackinac Island has a long and rich Native American story that begins centuries before European exploration and continues through today, but this story and its impact on Mackinac history were not effectively communicated to island visitors,” said Phil Porter, director of Mackinac State Historic Parks, the agency that oversees Mackinac Island State Park.

A map shows the locations of six interpretive panels on Mackinac Island, which detail various elements of Native American history.The Mackinac Island State Park Commission, in partnership with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, came up with the idea to the share this rich history through a series of interpretive stations on Lakeshore Boulevard (M-185), the road around the perimeter of Mackinac Island.

“This location is ideal, as it provides a picturesque and appropriate setting between the waters of Lake Huron and the woods of Mackinac and is used by hundreds of thousands of island visitors every summer,” Porter said.

Mackinac Associates – a friends group that helps preserve and share Straits of Mackinac-area heritage by supporting Mackinac State Historic Parks programs – began fundraising soon after the interpretive trail was proposed.

“One of our major areas of emphasis is education, and assisting residents and visitors better understand the historic value of Native American activity in the upper Great Lakes and around the country fits in with that mission,” said Peter Pellerito, president of Mackinac Associates. “Or board was very supportive of this proposal when it was brought to them. It’s an eminently desirable thing to support.”

Many others agreed and jumped on board to back the project as well, with Mackinac Associates exceeding its fundraising goal.

Pellerito said that contributions came from around Michigan and elsewhere, which is emblematic of the widespread interest in the Native American perspective and impact on the Straits area.

“You don’t have to be from Mackinaw City to understand and appreciate the Native American contribution to our part of the world and beyond.”

Eric Hemenway, director of Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, drafted theEric Hemenway, director of Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, drafted the language for the interpretive panels. language for the interpretive panels, installed in summer 2016, along what is now called the Native American Cultural History Trail.

“The working relationship between Little Traverse Bay Band Odawa Archives and Mackinac State Historic Parks has spanned nearly a decade,” Hemenway said. “We have worked together on numerous other projects centered around telling the diverse story of the Straits of Mackinac.

The work always was one of mutual respect and wanting to give the visitor to the Straits area the best possible experience. Part of enhancing that experience was realizing that Mackinac Island could use more interpretation of the Anishnaabek (Odawa, Ojibway and Potawatomi) story to the island.”

Out of that collaboration between the two organizations came six signs telling different stories of Native Americans at the Straits of Mackinac. The six themes the interpretive panels cover include:

  • Cultural significance: Mackinac Island has an important place in the history of the Anishnaabek, going back thousands of years and well documented in text and oral traditions.
  • Resting place of the ancestors: The islands of the Great Lakes have long been deemed sacred, not only for the spirits who live on them, but also because they serve as sacred burial grounds. Mackinac Island, Round Island, and Bois Blanc Island are all burial areas for ancient Anishnaabek.
  • People of the water: The Anishnaabek were, and are to this day, a people of the water, fishing the Great Lakes as well as travelling hundreds of miles to carry out trade and wage war. Mackinac Island, in the center of the upper Great Lakes, has been a summer gathering place for the Anishnaabek for centuries.
  • Contest for the island: French, British, Americans and various tribes would all fight to control the Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Island. Mackinac Island had an important role in the Iroquois War, French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War and War of 1812. On some of these occasions, the Anishnaabek fought to keep their island.
  • The Treaty of 1836: This treaty marked a pivotal moment for the Odawa and Ojibway of northern Michigan, helping to shape not only their history, but that of Michigan and the United States as well.
  • The Anishnaabek in the 21st Century: The Odawa and Ojibway avoided removal during the 19th century and fought for their rights throughout the 20th century.

The six interpretive panels were placed at stopping points along Lake Huron and incorporated into resting stations with benches and bicycle parking.

“Biking around the perimeter of the island is a popular activity, but with three-quarters of a million people or more coming to the island every year, it can get congested when visitors stop to take photos or admire the scenery,” said Porter. “Hopefully the convenience of these bike parking areas will decrease some of that congestion while simultaneously offering an important educational experience.”

The panels and areas surrounding them were designed to blend with the natural surroundings, utilizing locally familiar products like cedar and limestone, so as to not be obtrusive to the island’s natural beauty.

One of the interpretive panels along the interpretive trail on Mackinac Island.Mackinac State Historic Parks’ staff constructed the stations and designed, produced and installed the interpretive panels.

“I feel very honored to have been able to design a site like this that interprets such important and often under-represented information in such a holistic way,” said Mackinac State Historic Parks exhibit designer Keeney Swearer. “So often when creating trailside panels, there is only room to talk about a few subjects that often don't give readers the larger context to the story.

Since we had so much room we were able to spread the information out and deliver it to the visitors in a more deliberate way, hopefully introducing them to some of these larger concepts.”

Swearer added that the large panels also allowed the development team to present a wide variety of images, from early sketches and prints to modern photographs, most of which had not been used at Mackinac State Historic Parks before.

“I believe that to present this information to such a large and diverse audience is certainly a special thing,” he said.

Others who worked together to bring the Native American Cultural History Trail to fruition would agree.

“We were thrilled to see such terrific support for this worthwhile project,” said Porter. “This formalized interpretation of centuries of Native American culture on Mackinac Island will go a long way in promoting both enjoyment and understanding of the island’s rich history.”

Hemenway noted that, without collaboration, this project never would have happened.

“We’d like to thank Phil Porter and his staff once again for being great partners in telling the story of northern Michigan. Now, visitors can experience another level of the Mackinac Island’s story as they travel around the island,” Hemenway said.

Mackinac State Historic Parks, an agency within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, protects, preserves and presents Mackinac's rich historic and natural resources to provide outstanding educational and recreational experiences for the public.

In addition to Mackinac Island Historic State Park, its sites include Colonial Michilimackinac, Fort Mackinac, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum.

Learn more at

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories and subscribe to upcoming articles.

Note to editors: Contact: John Pepin, 906-226-1352. Accompanying photos are available below for download and media use. Suggested captions follow. Credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, unless otherwise noted.

Event.jpg: A group gathers in an event held to celebrate the Native American interpretive trail project.

Hemenway.jpg: Eric Hemenway, director of Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, drafted the language for the interpretive panels.

Location+map.jpg: A map shows the locations of six interpretive panels on Mackinac Island, which detail various elements of Native American history.

Panel.jpg: One of the interpretive panels along the interpretive trail on Mackinac Island.

Stop.jpg: Trail Stop No. 6, situated along the southwest corner of Mackinac Island.