By Dennis M. Morrison


When I was first given the permission to view and photograph the Naub-cow-so-win discs in the early 1990s they had been stored away in the archives at the Jessie Besser Museum in Alpena, Michigan and were rarely allowed to be viewed by anyone. Thankfully they are now a part of the permanent display open to the public. But what are these strange discs representative of and why are they so important? Their story is a fascinating one!

Setting The Stage In Prehistory:

Like people today, the ancient inhabitants of Michigan’s virgin pine forests had a strong belief system. Alpena, on Thunder Bay, is close to Mackinaw Island, the holy lands so to speak for these people. Mackinaw Island was believed to be the earthly home of Gitchi-Manitou, the Great Creator Spirit, who made all things.

There was, according to some, a fraternity of shaman’s that existed belonging to the Medi-we-win, or, Grand Medicine Society. It is believed by many that these discs are an extension of that fraternal order and that these discs preserve knowledge of the supernatural entities that the Grand Medicine Society believed in.

What Are The Discs?

What the discs are, among other things, are an extremely unique and rare expression of the entities the Algonquin believed in. Housed in the collection at the Besser Museum are 200 shale discs, many inscribed and many blank as if they were waiting to be inscribed. As I recall they were fairly small with not many reaching the size of a quarter. There were a few that were larger in all ranging from _ inch to 2 _ inches in diameter.

Those inscribed bore images of powerful spirits! They are reddish brown to black shale associated with Devonian age limestone. Blank discs were chipped out much in the same manner as arrowheads were manufactured. The rough shale was struck with bone hammers and then ground until the disc shape was achieved.

The discs were then polished by abrading the edges and sides using wet sand hand rubbed on leather. In a few instances the discs were drilled. Small drills made of flint were recovered from the same sites the discs were recovered from and are believed to be part of the manufacturing process. The actual incising of the images was done by the use of a sharp bone or stone engraving spur.

The Discovery!

These discs were found near the mouth of Thunder Bay River at Alpena, Michigan from a site believed to date to between 1200 to 1400 AD, the Late Woodland Era. In all three sites along the river were examined by Gerald Haltiner in the 1950s and 1960s. It was actually Gerald’s son, Robert, who allowed my access to the discs.

At the Hooley Site 117 discs were unearthed in various phases of completion. In the 1980s further work under the direction of Richard Clute resulted in the find of 200 more discs. These additional discs are house at the U of M Anthropology Museum in Lansing, Michigan. How unfortunate that this important collection of artifacts is separated now by well of a hundred miles when they should all be housed together at the Besser Museum.

Are They Real?

Whenever something truly unique in the prehistory of what would become the United States is discovered, the academics first jump to, “it’s a forgery!” “There has never been anything like it so it just can’t be real!”

Such was the case here also. So Mr. Haltiner gathered up his finds and put them safely away and then his son, Robert, placed them in the archives of the Besser Museum where they remained protected.

It was not until Richard Clute took an interest and subsequently made more finds that these rare images of the past were finally given the dedicated study they deserve. How unfortunate that many remarkable discoveries that would write new chapters in the history of man in the America’s have been put down as frauds and fakes because they just did not fit the accepted pattern of things. Thankfully that did not happen here and the discs are preserved.

The Images

I will detail only briefly the images on the discs that I personally examined. My time with them was brief and of course the second series housed at U of M I have never had a chance to examine.

Figuring prominently is Ah-ne-mi-ke, the powerful Thunderbird! The Thunderbird was believed to dwell in the sky to the west and they were able to create thunder by the motion of their enormous wings. Ah-ne-mi-ke was a powerful protector of the Algonquin people and often fought the evil Me-she-pe-shiw. It was believed that Ah-ne-mi-kee would form powerful thunder bolts and hurl them at his adversary Me-she-pe-shiw who lived in the waters.

Of all the representations I looked at on the discs that of the Thunderbird seemed the most detailed, this likely owing to how revered he was by the Algonquin people.

Me-she-pe-shew was represented on 16 different discs. He also is a powerful entity but evil. His form was that of a supernatural mountain lion who lived beneath the waters of the Great Lakes. The flailing of his enormous tail was believed to have caused the powerful storms that were and are so common on the Great Lakes.

In his depiction, Me-she-pe-shew is shown with a very prominent long tail, feet with claws, horns on the head and triangular armor like plates down his back. A long pointed nose is also common on some of the discs.

The otter is important in Algonquin mythology and Ne-gig the Great Otter is represented here. He was vital in the creation of the earth. Ne-gig assisted Gitchi-Manitou by diving to the bottom of an ancient sea and returning with muck from the depths which was used to create the earth.

On one of his discs, Ne-gig is shown with a triangular head, thin body and long legs. He is represented on five discs that I have knowledge of.

Other notable mentions on the Naub-cow-zo-win discs include Moz the moose. Moz appears headless on a single disc. Amik the beaver is also on one known disc.

Many abstract and non-animal forms also appear on the discs.

Michi-gi-zhik, the Great Medicine Tree is represented on 19 shale discs. The Great Medicine Tree was important because it was the source of medicine knowledge to the Algonquin. Design motif for these discs features a triangular form from which the tree springs. This is believed to be a mountain. The tree trunk is often shown expanding with the crown pointing down. In most cases, a line representing the horizon is in place.

Their Use?

What exactly these discs were used for is a matter of conjecture. Certainly they were crafted to honor the entities represented on them and perhaps preserve the knowledge of them.

I personally feel that these discs were, at least in part, used to appease the spirits of Thunder Bay and to allow safe passage over the often rough waters of the bay and Lake Huron. A find that might substantiate this was made when a single disc was found directly across Lake Huron at Ontario, Canada. Obviously the voyager who held that disc made it safely to his destination and left the disc in thanks!

In the title of this article I called the discs a “bible.” In a real way I believe that is what they represent. Just as our Bible preserves the knowledge on the all powerful God who created everything from nothing, these discs represent an attempt to preserve the knowledge of the all powerful beings that the Algonquin people believed in and thus a small amount of knowledge of those ancients was preserved for us today.

Associated Finds

The depiction of images human, animal or abstract among the Native Americans of the Woodland Cultures was rare, at least as opposed to other artifacts recovered. Of all the Late Woodland Sites, and they are many, in northeast Michigan only the sites on Thunder Bay have produced these discs. There have been, however, other artifacts that have been found which also have similar designs etched into them that figure into the Midi-we-win beliefs. Unfortunately as these are not so recognizable by most (as say an arrowhead would be) likely a great many have been over looked.

Such items would be contemporary companions to the discs. As an example, at Oscoda, Michigan only about 45 miles south of Alpena and still on the Lake Huron shore an engraved stone was unearthed at the Old Van Etten Creek Site.

This unique stone featured a star-burst design consisting of a central hole drilled through the middle of the stone with straight lines radiating out from it. These straight lines were then bisected with circular lines.

The thing here that is important is that again, this would have been over looked by the average person out looking for artifacts. I suspect that many such relics are out there waiting to be found. Collectively, as these all come to light, and if they could be brought together rather than some being housed in Alpena, some in Lansing and others here and there, they would form a truly fantastic view of the belief system of these ancient peoples.