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The Death of a Mound

Politics and Human Remains in Minnesota

Part 2

 -November 1, 2004-

 

A New Mound, Just as Good as the Old Mound

 

Bruce White

 

In 1934, an archaeologist with the University of Minnesota, wrote in a letter what he described as a “scientific” method for the complete excavation of a mound: “The best way to dig a mound, and the only technique recognized by a good scientist, is to completely face it. During this process the dirt taken out can be thrown in back of you so that when the complete mound is dug a new mound (and one that looks as good) is built up about eight or ten feet in the rear of the one just excavated. Few archaeologists today would suggest this is the proper way to deal with burial mounds. Yet the total excavation of one Indian burial mound and the building of another to replace it is exactly what is occurring at the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington, Minnesota, today.

The University of Minnesota archaeologist in 1934 was writing at a time when mounds were not protected by law and were excavated for scientific purposes and also looted by non-archaeologists. Remains found by archaeologists were sometimes reburied but more often were placed in museums to be studied and sometimes displayed. In the 1960s, one-third of all mound investigations by archaeologists in Minnesota were for purely research purposes. But since 1971 no “research-oriented archeological investigations” of Minnesota mounds have occurred. When excavations have occurred they have been salvage operations in response to construction projects or natural forces such as erosion. The actions in Bloomington are the result of this kind of salvage project.

This change in how archaeologists deal with mounds has occurred because of changing social attitudes and changing laws, which have protected mounds containing burials just like other cemeteries. Minnesota’s Private Cemeteries law (307.08) protects all human burials equally regardless of ethnic origin or religious and cultural background, on both public and private lands. It is a felony to remove destroy, or mutilate human remains and burial grounds. Under the state law it is the duty of the Minnesota’s State Archaeologist to authenticate burial sites. State law provides that when Indian remains are located in a mound or elsewhere the responsibility for ascertaining the tribal identity of the remains is shared with the Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), a state agency consisting of staff and representatives from federally recognized tribes. If the tribal identity of the individuals is determined the remains will be given over to “contemporary tribal leaders for disposition.”

While Indian burial grounds are given strict protection under the law, the MIAC is involved in making decisions about what happens to them. Minnesota Statute 307.08, subdivision 8, states that “No authenticated and identified Indian burial ground may be relocated unless the request to relocate is approved by the Indian Affairs Council, in the state. When the Indian burial ground is located on public lands or waters, the cost of removal is the responsibility of and shall be paid by the state or political subdivision controlling the lands or waters. If large Indian burial grounds are involved, efforts shall be made by the state to purchase and protect them instead of removing them to another location.” The first part of this provision has usually been used as a basis for protecting mounds from development, though that is not the way things are working out in relation to the Lincoln Mounds site in Bloomington.

The city of Bloomington has strict protections for the many burial mounds and other such sites found in the city. The city code states that “except as otherwise expressly permitted, no person shall demolish, move, or materially alter a prehistoric site.” Similar protections exist for historic sites. However, a “certificate of appropriateness” may be issued to “demolish, move, or materially alter” both kinds of sites, a process that includes city council approval and approval by the city’s Natural and Historical Resources Commission.

In exercising this authority, the city of Bloomington has, because of the provisions of state law, worked with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the State Archaeologist. According to an article written by Mordecai Specktor in 1994, Bloomington has taken the lead in protecting burial mounds. When development proposals have been proposed in the past, the city has worked with developers to make their developments compatible with burial mounds. Spector wrote that Bloomington had seen to it that the presence of mounds was recorded “in the deed to a property, so if ownership changes hands, the new owners will be aware of the location of the Indian cemetery and attendant restrictions.”

As stated above, the duty of authenticating a burial place whether Indian or otherwise rests with the State Archaeologist. In fact, state law currently provides that the “cost of authentication, identification, marking, and rescue of unmarked or unidentified burial grounds or burials shall be the responsibility of the state.” Unfortunately state resources do not allow for the State Archaeologist to carry out this portion of the law consistently. It seems to be widely understood by archaeologists in Minnesota that the State Archaeologist will do much of the work of authentication for small sites that do not involve companies that can afford to do the work themselves, but that when developers are involved they pay for the costs of hiring archaeologists and others to conduct surveys and research, to provide the materials necessary to aid the State Archaeologist in authenticating burial sites. In the process, this state function is carried out in part by private firms.

Developers undertake the expense because it is a means for them to deal with inconvenient resources—ones that are protected by law—that might otherwise delay or prevent construction. If a developer wants to begin his project in an area known or suspected to contain burials it is in his interest to first do the authentication surveys and mitigation necessary to satisfy the State Archaeologist and if Indian remains are involved, the MIAC. Paying for authentication surveys has come to be a method of wise site planning that can, early on in a project, lead to economical solutions for dealing with human remains.

An example of how this works can be seen across the street from the controversial site of Mound 2 of the Lincoln Mounds. In 1998, during excavations on the site of the Ceridian Corporation headquarters in Bloomington, archaeologists found evidence of a partially intact mound, later determined to be Mound 4 of the Lincoln Mounds group, a mound group first mapped in the 19th century. At the time of that the Lincoln Mounds included five mounds. By the time of the 1998 project one of the mounds was clearly gone. Mound 4 of the original mounds was still found to be present. It had been protected because a tree was growing in it and a rock garden had been put on part of it by a former property owner. Because Mound 4 was partially intact and because of its location on the property, a way was found to allow the mound to remain during subsequent construction.

While excavating elsewhere on the Ceridian property archaeologists found a number of other remains scattered over the property. These remains were believed to be remnants of disturbed burials, possibly ones that had been part of Mound 5 of the Lincoln Mounds. During the course of this project, a decision was reached in consultation with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the Ceridian Corporation to take these remains and excess dirt that accumulated during the survey and excavation and create a new mound on the Ceridian property. In this mound the Ceridian Corporation would agree to protect and which could hold remains not only from the property itself, but ones found nearby in the future. The mound was named the Bluff Ridge Mound.

A press release issued by the Ceridian Corporation at the grand opening of the company’s building in 2000 described the partnership between the company and state officials that resulted in this solution for dealing with mounds and human remains. Ceridian had contacted the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and sought to work out a solution to protect the site. Joe Day, executive director of the MIAC was quoted as saying “Normally, there’s a standoff and diminishing property values. In the extreme case, developers care nothing about the culture and do what they damn please. Ceridian took a completely different approach. They were proactive and respectful. Once we saw that, we said, ‘We’ll do anything to help you finish your project.’” Ceridian picked out the site for the new mound, with the approval of MIAC.

In the Bluff Ridge Mound fourteen sets of remains were reburied. As stated around this time “The first re-burial ceremony occurred in November 1998, close to Thanksgiving. The remains of each person found on the site were wrapped in red cloth bundles and returned to their final resting-place in an unforgettable ceremony. Afterward the participants shared a meal together and recalled their year of remarkable collaboration.” One of the representatives of the MIAC stated: “We walked away with a better understanding of each other. That’s something that all of us will never forget.” The experience of working on the Ceridian project appears to have had an important influence on some of the archaeologists who participated in that project, as well as the MIAC itself.

The Ceridian project may be key to understanding what happened at the site of the other Lincoln Mounds in the summer of 2004. It seemed only natural that when a construction project was proposed across the road, the Ceridian project would be looked to as a model for how to carry things out and the Bluff Ridge Mound was looked to as a place where remains uncovered would be reburied.

As in the earlier project, a private archaeological firm was hired to aid the State Archaeologist in carrying out the state function of burial authentication. This firm prepared a “Work Plan” dated July 14, 2004, describing the various steps, including research and ground surveys that would be used to aid the State Archaeologist. A budget was also attached estimating that the costs of the work would be $72,900.00, though it was stated that “should human remains be encountered the fieldwork will become more complex and additional tasks will be required.”

The July 14, 2004, work plan, which was signed by the State Archaeologist and representatives of the construction company and the MIAC, make clear that when the document was written, it was known that Mounds 1, 2, and 3 of the Lincoln Mounds were within the project area. It also seems clear that under the work plan there would be no attempt to preserve any of these mound sites. Though the extent of human remains that might be found in this area and the degree of disturbance were unknown, whatever remains were uncovered would be removed and relocated, in all likelihood, to the Bluff Ridge Mound or another location nearby.

The work plan states: “At the request of the MIAC, and in consultation with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Community, after remains are formally excavated, recorded and analyzed the human remains will be relocated through a reburial ceremony. A new burial mound may be constructed near the recently constructed mound at Ceridian or the recently constructed mound will be modified so that the shape of the extant mound becomes oblong instead of circular. The reburial ceremony will be coordinated and carried out by representatives of the MIAC and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Community.”

Excavations in the area of Mounds 1, 2, and 3 of the Lincoln Mounds began in mid-July 2004 and continued through late October, a period of over three months. Rumors about the extent of remains found there have spread throughout the archaeological and Indian communities in Minnesota. Specific details have been in short supply due to the unwillingness of state officials to give answers.

Because of the policy of secrecy followed by state officials, it is too soon to fully evaluate all the actions taken by archaeologists, the MIAC, and other parties in relation to these mound sites. However, it is worth examining one aspect of their work: the concept of reburial outlined for both this project and the earlier Ceridian project. In both cases the officials and archaeologists involved have endorsed a concept of reburial involving the building of new mounds to replace old ones previously destroyed. In the 1998 Ceridian project remains scattered by the destruction of earlier mounds were gathered with excavated soil to make a new mound. In the current project, on the other hand, a more radical set of actions is being undertaken: the destruction of an existing mound with its contents set aside to be used in creating a new mound in a more convenient location.

Several of those involved in the Ceridian project make clear their feeling that that project was a respectful means of dealing with remains that had already been disturbed, keeping them as close to their original site on that bluff high above the Minnesota River, where the relatives of those who had died long ago had reverently and carefully buried them. Building a new mound, with the cooperation of the landowner provided a means for protecting these remains in an unmistakable landscape feature long into the future. Indian spiritual leaders involved in the process may also believe that this was a reverent reburial, honoring those who died.

But how much reverence and respect is shown by this policy of building new burial mounds? This question relates in part to a more basic question: Why did people in the past build mounds? It might be argued that the mound builders of the past built mounds purely for the purely practical reason that the archaeologists and the MIAC did in 1998, simply as a convenient way to protect human remains. In fact we know very little about the reasons for the building of the mounds found along the Minnesota River or in other prominent places in Minnesota. Not all mounds contain burials, not all the burials found can be connected to Native groups existing today, and not all burials in mounds were placed there by the peoples who built the mounds. But when burials are found in such mounds we must assume that those who buried them had some purpose in doing so and that the locations had some meaning for them.

Burials, whether in mounds or elsewhere are one record of a people’s relationship to places and landscapes, a link between the places where they live and their history. There is not a lot of evidence about just exactly who built the many mounds along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, but the archaeologist Scott Anfinson has pointed out that there is a clear correlation between the distribution of mounds in Minnesota and the distribution of the early historic Dakota people. Concentrations of mounds are found today around the locations of Dakota villages. The once-numerous mounds in Bloomington were close to village sites and the to area within the sacred center of the Dakota people, Mdote Minisota, the mouth of the Minnesota River.

For Dakota people the link between burial locations and the history of the people is especially poignant because of what happened to the Dakota in 1863 when most were exiled from the state. In 1936, the anthropologist Ella Deloria recorded a statement from an elder at Prairie Island, a community that arose after the return of many Dakota in the 1870s and 1880s. Deloria wrote: “When I visited a Santee community south of St. Paul, one of the women told me, “We were driven out of Minnesota wholesale, though the majority of our people were innocent. But we could not stay away so we managed to find our way back, because our makapahas were here.” The term means earth-hills and is the Santee idiom for graves.

Oheyawahi or Pilot Knob, a hill with a mound-like top, located above the mouth of the Minnesota River was a well known burial place for Dakota people, as well as being a sacred place where medicine ceremonies were practiced. The missionary Gideon Pond recounted the Dakota story of a woman who carried the body of her husband all the way from Lake Pepin to Oheyawahi, after he was killed in a hunting accident, so that he could be placed on a scaffold on the hill and presumably later buried there. An article in the Hastings Gazette of February 20, 1886, made clear that Mendota was one of the places to which the Dakota were then returning, stating: “The Pilot Knob is an ancient burial place of the Dakota’s, and is yearly visited by many of the Indians of that nation.”

Dakota elder Chris Leith stated in 2003 that Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob is a sacred landmark, and that Dakota people buried their dead in sacred places like this hill because they knew the remains would not be molested. Leith said that because of the hill’s sacredness no one would ever have thought of putting a village there. It was a space that was to be left alone, except for burials and ceremonies. His words provide some clues about the meaning of burial mounds. Whether or not the early Dakota actually built all the mounds in the places in which they lived, it must be believed that they looked at them as sacred spaces, pieces of the landscape where no one would think to build a village, ones where human remains would remain untouched and undisturbed.

But for 19th and 20th century non-Indians, mounds were not sacred, they were inconvenient lumps of ground. Throughout Minnesota burial places were routinely dug up. Mounds were routinely excavated, looted, and flattened, eradicating these sacred marks of the peoples who had been there before. Even the mound-like top of Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob was not left alone. In the 1920s when a cemetery was placed on the summit of hill, the top few feet of the hill, with Indian remains, were removed.

Things have changed since the 1970s. Mounds are not routinely destroyed but they are still continually threatened, especially in places like Bloomington, where the pressure for development is intense. But even as some mounds are saved, mounds have yet to be understood or truly valued for their continuing sacred presence in the landscape. The idea that a group however well meaning can create a new mound to contain remains while mounds around it are destroyed seems to miss the point about the meaning of mounds. New mounds can never have the sacred meaning in the landscape that these mounds had for the people who built or used mounds in the past. To presume to build a new mound and fill it with remains from destroyed mounds and burial places seems perilously close to the kind of New Age mentality that most Indian people abhor, the creation of a false representation that misrepresents what it seeks to replace.

What choices did those working on the Ceridian project have? They uncovered scattered remains from a mound that did not exist any more. They wished to preserve those remains on site. Even though the new mound may lack the sacred meaning of the earlier mounds, these actions may have been justifiable in that limited case. But can the same thing be said for the current project involving Mounds 1, 2, and 3 across the road? Here the rationale to remove and rebury seems to operate on much shakier grounds. There is no record that other options besides removal of the remains were actually explored. If there is truth in the rumors that Mound 2 of the Lincoln Mounds group contains dozens of human burials, with remains of adults arranged in a formation around the remains of children, then the decision to remove seems all the more questionable.

Father Kevin Clinton of the St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Mendota, writing in support of the protection of Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob from a proposed housing development stated: “St. Peter’s Parish cemetery is a historic and valued part of our parish community. We have buried the ancestors of our faith community back to the 1850s. . . . If anything would threaten the grounds of our parish cemetery, there would be immediate and powerful efforts organized to protect this sacred and consecrated ground.” Father Clinton went on to say that Indian cemeteries such as Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob deserved the same kind of protection and support.

Placement of remains in particular places and in particular arrangements is known among many peoples. The way we bury our dead expresses both our deepest loving respect and the support of our entire community, through our shared culture, in a time of grief and loss. Those who remove burial mounds violate these sacred places. Those who excavate, rearrange, and rebury remains that are so carefully placed violate the basic reverence with which many people treat the bodies of their parents, their spouses, their children, their friends. Such actions raise serious questions that deserve answers before projects like this are begun, rather than after they are completed.

Read Death of a Mound, Part 1.

Sources: Information on mounds and the history of the way they have been treated in the past can be found in Minnesota’s Indian Mounds and Burial Sites: A Synthesis of Prehistoric and Early Historic Archaeological Data, by Constance M. Arzigian and Katherine P. Stevenson, published by the Minnesota Office of State Archaeologist in 2003. Information on Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob can be found at: www.pilotknobpreservation.org.

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