By Maya Goldman 

On a foggy day in mid-September, a group of mostly Native American women set out in a 32-foot wooden canoe to search the lake bed of northern Michigan's Straits of Mackinac. They wanted to get a look at energy-firm Enbridge Inc.'s Line 5 oil pipeline, where the company is proposing to build a $500 million tunnel to encase a replaced part of the pipeline under the Straits.

The group says they found numerous patterns of evenly-spaced stones under the water near Line 5 that could date back 10,000 years and would mark the first finding of such man-made patterns underwater outside of Lake Huron.

Fred Harrington Jr., a member of the group who serves on the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians' tribal council, said the rock patterns were reminiscent of stone circles used in his tribe's ceremonies. "The circles and ceremonies are part of who we are, there's no doubt about that," he said.

The group is now hoping they have enough evidence to halt the project, which also faces some objections from local groups for environmental concerns, but they have an uphill battle in front of them.

Enbridge says the purpose of the tunnel is to virtually eliminate the chance of a pipeline spill in the Straits. The company will continue to work with the departments and agencies involved in permitting, but "at the end of the day we believe that we will be able to obtain the permits for this project," said Peter Holran, Enbridge's director of government relations, U.S.

The group has submitted their findings to the state as a public comment on two of the 10 major permits Enbridge needs to begin construction on its proposed tunnel project. The state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy will make a decision on those two permits by early December.

The potential archaeological site will factor into the state's decision to grant the permits, and officials are awaiting guidance from the State Historic Preservation Office on how to proceed, a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, Hugh McDiarmid Jr., said.

The Historic Preservation Office might require an additional survey to learn more about the findings, ask Enbridge to have an archaeologist on-site as they are constructing the tunnel or decide the findings aren't significant, Mr. McDiarmid said.

Matthew Fletcher, law professor and director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University, said that even if the project gets approved now, it could still face legal challenges in the future, referencing continuing legal battles over whether other pipelines, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, harm Native American tribes.

If the rock patterns were man-made, they would have been created the last time the Straits were above water, about 10,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age, said University of Michigan archaeology professor John O'Shea. He has found similar rock patterns made by humans 9,000 years ago in Lake Huron. He said artifacts like this have never been documented underwater outside of Lake Huron, but that the Straits would be a natural place for them to exist.

The idea of the expedition came up this summer, when Terri Wilkerson and her friend Andrea Pierce, also a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, decided to take an independent look at Line 5, which transports crude oil from Wisconsin to Ontario via the Straits of Mackinac.

Ms. Wilkerson has been organizing against Line 5 and the proposed tunnel project since 2017, and Ms. Pierce for nearly a decade. An 1836 treaty grants several Native American tribes the right to fish in the Straits of Mackinac, and if Line 5 were to cause an oil spill in the Great Lakes, "we stand to lose so much as a people," said Ms. Pierce.

Two other Native American women quickly joined their efforts this summer, as did Mr. Harrington. Ms. Wilkerson raised funds to hire a contractor to use side-scan sonar equipment to search the lake bottom for the pipeline.

It was the contractor who initially spotted the stones under the water. The group then went back into the Straits on a community canoe, known as a jiimaan, to get a second look at the area, with a remotely operated vehicle.

"It was a huge project, rigging electronics, batteries, all that crap, onto something that never carried anything but paddlers," said Mr. Harrington.

For Ms. Pierce, making this potential discovery "strengthens my resolve to fight this with everything," she said. "Because this is my culture and my traditions."

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 22, 2020 09:21 ET (13:21 GMT)

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