Workers excavate the site of one of the archeological digs on the right of way for the M-231 bridge over the Grand River near Nunica, Ottawa County, in 2011. (MDOT Photo)

The foundation for a new set of lesson plans to teach third- and fifth-graders about Michigan archaeology and the state’s Native American past comes from an unexpected place – under a bridge.

Information from two archaeological sites excavated by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) in 2011 and 2012 in advance of the construction of the M-231 bridge over the Grand River was used to develop the new lesson plans.

The Ottawa County excavations showed evidence of several occupations dating primarily between 800 and 350 years ago. Artifacts, including pottery shards and stone tools along with food remains, were recovered. These excavations provided evidence that the sites were used for harvesting wild rice and fishing for lake sturgeon. The work earned MDOT a Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation in 2015.

Michael Hambacher, principal archaeologist for the consultant who excavated the sites for MDOT, considers them a “one-of-a-kind” find.

“This is a site that is loaded with cache pits. This is a place where they were storing food,” Hambacher said. “We have not seen a site like this before in southern Michigan.”         

Wesley Andrews, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, said the archaeological sites are a reminder to the Anishinabek “of how we are tied to the landscape and how we are tied to the land, to the water, to the spirits and creatures beneath the water and to those spirits and creatures in the sky.”

Working with many stakeholders, MDOT has developed a curriculum, Ancestors, Archaeology and the Anishinabek: Bridging the Past into the Future, to put the archaeology in context for grade school students. Two short curriculum units, one for third-graders and one for fifth-graders, were created. They’re now available on MDOT’s website at and are ready for use by teachers in public, tribal, private, parochial, or home school settings.

Each grade level unit includes five lesson plans and support materials for teachers using information from the MDOT archaeological sites and information from tribal historians, educators, and elders. Supplementary support materials, including three posters for classrooms, will be added to the website as they are completed.

Jim Cameron, social studies consultant for the Curriculum and Instruction Unit of the Michigan Department of Education, said “the M-231 project has created a quality educational resource for Michigan students.”

The archaeological sites are brought to life by interpreting them through the cultural, historical, environmental, and indigenous knowledge of the Anishinabek people (Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi), also known as The Three Fires, whose ancestors created the sites. The lesson plans address misconceptions, stereotypes, and preconceived notions about Native American history and culture that characterize many of the materials currently available to teachers.

“It’s the story of the Anishinabek people that we’re learning about in doing the excavations of these sites,” said MDOT Archaeologist James Robertson. “This whole complex of things is related to what we know prehistorically, historically, and today about how the Native American tribes of Michigan look at wild rice and lake sturgeon – from a cultural, economic, and a spiritual viewpoint. So it is an opportunity to learn and better understand the heritage of Michigan’s native people.”

Editors: A video news release about the M-231 archaeological sites is online at: M-231 Archaeology Video