Learning the Land's Whole Story
Understanding the Cultural History of Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve
Close your eyes, spin the globe, and let your finger find a spot. No matter where it is, that dot of land has history – and stories to tell.
Wanting to know more about the full human history of the land where the new Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve sits, we learned that some ‘cultural artifacts’ had been found at the property by an archaeologist back in the 1970’s, tiny chips of non-local stone (possibly gotten through trade?) that might have been left over when someone knapped the head of a tool from stone.
So – out of respect for the living descendants of the people who once lived and traveled through the area – we invited Kaila Akina (Cultural Resources Specialist with the Gun Lake Tribe, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians) and Dr. Jessica Yann (Archaeological Collections Manager at Michigan State University Museum) to come take a look.
But having no handy mapping app on which to find GPS coordinates or drop a pin back in the 1970’s, that archaeologist could only describe the location of their find in words. And, of course, the landscape has changed a lot in the 45 years or so since that report was made! So, how could we ever find such tiny fragments in the 140-acre, wooded preserve?
Reading those old notes, the team (which included SWMLC Stewardship Director Mitch Lettow) did their best to locate the spot, then Jessica began digging into the dirt and roots with a shovel. She also ran a 30-inch metal coring tool into the soil, and found that the “organic layer” (the rich, darker dirt on top that’s mostly made of decayed leaves) was only a few inches deep. If they were to find any knapping fragments, it would most likely be here. The mineral-heavy, yellow-ish layer below was more coarse and less likely to contain human artifacts.
Jessica dumped a shovelful of dirt onto a screen to be sifted and inspected more thoroughly. The screen was set inside a rugged frame, which had handles on one long end and legs connected by hinges to the other end. Grasping the handles, Kaila rocked the screen back and forth, sending a fine stream of soil out the bottom, leaving larger items behind for closer examination. Unfortunately, there were no knapping crumbs here.
The team hit a few more spots and Jessica took a few more soil samples with the coring tool. She pointed out the crisp difference in color between soil horizons in areas where the ground hadn’t been disturbed; but that the layers were more mixed together in areas where the soil had been plowed. She also explained why there was no need to explore any areas near the Kalamazoo River, which wraps around this peninsula preserve, because it would wash away or cover any artifacts during flooding events. What’s more, these low-lying areas are probably not places where people would want to camp or settle . . . too wet and buggy.
In the end, the team didn’t find the tiny artifacts that the archaeologist described 45 years ago. There were a few suspicious looking stone chips, but they weren’t big enough or abundant enough to rule out the possibility that glaciers brought them. There was even a fire cracked rock – a sign of human-used fire that can cleave a rock clean in two. But with its fresh un-weathered surface, it was more likely a result of the prescribed fire SWMLC tended this spring.
Even though we didn’t find any obvious signs of extensive human occupation at Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve, we will continue to keep our eyes open for clues. And we will continue to respect the land by consulting with its original stewards, protecting it from development, working to restore healthy habitats that benefit wildlife and plants, and connecting it with more people who also care about nature.
By listening to those who know more, we gain a greater understanding of and reverence for the land’s deep cultural history. We’re honored to learn from the living descendants of the people who loved, raised families, and lived there before.
Story, Amelia Hansen, edited by Mitch Lettow • Photos, Mitch Lettow