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The Death of a Mound

Politics and Human Remains in Minnesota

Part 6

 -February 25, 2005-

The Rumors Were True

 

Bruce White

 

There are no more doubts about the nature of what was found and what was done at the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington, Minnesota, on the site of a $700 million development project. The rumors, reported over the last few months, have turned out to be true. Found at the site of Mound 2, a few blocks from the Mall of America, was a mass burial consisting of more than 20 sets of human remains buried in a circular pattern, with adult remains around the outside and children in the center, and some other scattered remains underneath. During the summer and fall of 2004, all these remains were excavated and removed from the site under the supervision of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC). They now await reburial somewhere. The only remaining question is why this had to happen.

It will be remembered that the rumors about what was found at the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington surfaced in late August and early September, but at that time officials with MIAC refused to confirm or deny the rumors except to say that the remains were not buried in a circle. In response to a Minnesota Data Practices Act request MIAC officials provided information about the beginnings of the excavation in July 2004. Documents from the agency suggest that the MIAC made the decision to remove and rebury and remains found at the site prior to the beginning of excavation. But that information contained no record of any of the excavations at the site nor of what was found there.

Confirmation of the rumors has come from several sources. In a recent conversation the Minnesota State Archaeologist Mark Dudzik has stated that he observed at the Lincoln Mounds site a partial circle of over twenty sets of human remains. There were rumors during the fall that Dudzik had stated in conversations with others that these remains had been found at the site, but the State Archaeologist has been unwilling to confirm the find until now. Dudzik's confirmation of the rumors comes in the midst of criticism of him by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and its supporters and unverified claims that he is partly responsible for the events in Bloomington.

The other confirmation of the rumors comes from an unexpected source, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council itself. The reasons for the council's unwillingness to make a full public disclosure of what was found at the Bloomington site or to provide an explanation of what occurred at the Lincoln Mounds during the MIAC-directed archaeological survey have not been completely clear. Recently however, a MIAC official and another individual associated with the agency finally discussed the Lincoln Mounds project publicly, at an event sponsored by MIAC at the Izatys Resort on the south shore of Lake Mille Lacs on the weekend of February 4, 5, and 6, 2005.

It should be pointed out that this series of articles has been written in the spirit of free discussion. It has never been assumed that the rumors were correct. Instead the purpose of these articles has been to raise questions and seek answers. The fact that answers were not forthcoming became increasingly to look like stonewalling. If the rumors were wrong, why was there no direct denial of them? Why was MIAC unwilling to set the record straight?

The announcement of the workshop to be held at Izatys Resort promised some answers. The workshop was under the joint sponsorship of the Minnesota Indian Affairs, the Council for Minnesota Archaeology, the Minnesota Historical Society, and several Dakota communities in Minnesota. Entitled the “Cooperative Stewardship Workshop,” the event was intended to provide a means through which archaeologists and Indian people could improve their interactions involving archaeology. The reason that it was thought the event would provide answers about the Lincoln Mounds was that every individual connected to the work done at the Bloomington site was either involved in the planning of the event, or was on the program.

It was a surprise then when Tom Ross of the Upper Sioux Community, who served as emcee throughout the event, greeted attendees on Friday night saying that though it was rumored that the event about the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington, this was not the case. As it turned out the Cooperative Stewardship Workshop was about many issues which will need to be reported in more detail at some point. But it was also very much about the Lincoln Mounds.

Cooperative Stewardship

Those involved closely in the workshop say that something like it has been planned for many years, as a way for improving communications between archaeologists and Indian people about the treatment of American Indian archaeological sites and burial places. More urgency was felt about it in recent months and more intensive planning took place in the fall of 2004. At some time in January, a preliminary program was sent out. The program described the purpose of the event:

The “healthy place” referred to here was apparently viewed as impossible to achieve in the Twin Cities. Instead a more centralized spot in the state was chosen, at Lake Mille Lacs, far from present-day Dakota communities. Conference organizers stated that even though Dakota communities were the main Native sponsors of the event, the location made sense because it was in the heart of the former homeland of Dakota people.

Although the word stewardship was not defined, it was intended to refer to the joint responsibility that archaeologists and Native people feel over sites of various kinds. For Indian people such stewardship is defined by their commitment to their cultural heritage. Elisse Aune of the Mille Lacs Band stated during the workshop that this commitment extends to all facets of their heritage, including cultural sites, sacred sites, and the environment.  Such stewardship may be more difficult for archaeologists. Michelle Terrell of the Two Pines Resource Group stated that stewardship implies a long-term interest in particular places, one that is not always possible for archaeologists to achieve.

The workshop was “broadly designed in order to invite the concerns and contributions of participants from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives,” in order to inaugurate a continuing series of discussions in the months and years to come. As it happened, there were many groups of archaeologists and Indian people who were not there. Few Minnesota Ojibwe people were present and as for archaeologists, one faction of Minnesota archaeologists outnumbered another. Although it is not widely known outside the field, the world of archaeology in Minnesota is marred by a long-running quarrel going back many years between the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the Office of State Archaeologist (OSA). Even if they don’t intend to be, archaeologists and those who write, or even those who merely think occasionally, about archaeology are categorized by whether they are perceived as being on one side or the other. The author of some of the articles in this series was once categorized among those critical of the State Archaeologist, but may now be categorized wrongly by many as an opponent of the MIAC because he has pursued questions about the agency’s actions at the Lincoln Mounds. Among the attendees at the Izatys event, the supporters of MIAC outnumbered greatly those supporting the OSA.

The program suggested the following topics as relevant for discussion:

As shown here, the questions raised by the workshop program are many of the same questions that have been raised about the actions taken by state officials and archaeologists at the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington and about the system under which they operate. In practice, the intent of the organizers of the workshop was that these questions be addressed in general terms, without reference to specific events or people.

Tom Ross opened the Saturday morning session describing his interest for many years in holding just such a workshop. He spoke about the need for people to respect each other, rather than drawing a line in the sand. He was followed by Bronco LeBeau of the Cheyenne River Sioux, who spoke of his long-term interest in the treatment of archaeological sites and human remains. No matter what the circumstances, LeBeau stated, human remains should be treated respectfully, “the way they were treated when they were put in the ground.” He spoke of the system his tribe has developed to identify sacred sites and other important places in the landscape.

LeBeau was followed by Kevin Brownlee, who is with the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg and is Cree. Brownlee spoke of his experiences in working with Native communities and provided many examples of ways in which archaeology can be used for the communities in which it is done. He emphasized the need for archaeologists to communicate with a wider audience, including people who do not read archaeology reports.  

After these presentations, participants broke into small groups to discuss their concerns and interests. After lunch, there were more small group discussions. In some cases groups discussed a variety of issues that related, both implicitly and explicitly, to the Lincoln Mounds experience. In one group, Joe Williams, the Dakota spiritual leader who gave prayers at the Lincoln Mounds in July 2004, stated that it was important to think about what protection meant in relation to Native burial places. Personally, he believed that removal and reburial of remains in a respectful way was protection.

Finally, at mid-afternoon, participants gathered to hear a discussion by a panel of some of the themes that had been raised in the small groups. It was at this event that most surprising revelations about the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington occurred.

One of the panelists was Mark Fabel, a representative of McGough Development, the firm seeking to build at the Lincoln Mounds site in Bloomington. Fabel spoke about how, from the beginning of the Bloomington project in the spring of 2004, the experience of the last ten months had educated him about the process laid out under state law. The major problem as he saw it was that when a developer buys some land and plans to develop it, he does not always know what archaeological resources exist on the land. When the developer discovers that there are such resources on his land, he becomes enmeshed in a dicey and political process.

In the case of the Lincoln Mounds, Fabel said that when he learned that there was a possibility that such resources existed on the Bloomington property, he made phone calls to two agencies—the Office of State Archaeologist and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. Those phone calls pointed him in two different directions. One of the agencies told him not to discuss anything with the other agency. After this, he and the representatives of the two agencies met for two months arguing about the law and how to apply it in the case of the Lincoln Mounds. Throughout this process none of them knew whether human remains existed at the site. And during this period, Fabel noted “the people whose remains were there were not even involved in the dialogue.” It is unclear whether Fabel meant the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community or the Mendota Dakota by this statement.

Soon after this, Bob Sharlin of the City of Bloomington was asked for his comments. Sharlin has been involved in issues relating to burial mounds for 25 years. Sharlin noted that Bloomington has hundreds of mounds and dozens of  mound groups. He stated that the city has tried to be a good steward of these mounds, highlighting their importance. Sharlin argued that the city is limited in what it can do in the way of stewardship, by the provisions of MS 307.08 and the authority it gives to the OSA and the MIAC. Although the city has been fairly successful in the past, the regulatory picture it deals with is a puzzle, not a picture. Sharlin concluded that perhaps the time has come to re-examine the way the laws work.  

Throughout this discussion and what followed, there were very few comments and questions from the audience of workshop participants. One of the few was Jim Anderson of the Mendota Dakota. Speaking in a conciliatory fashion, Anderson stated that the MIAC has been doing a very good job at protecting Native Sites, but that there may be changes in the law that could help the agency do its job better.  Anderson proposed an elder’s council composed of people from the various tribes to be involved in decision-making about burials. He stated that since the spiritual leaders do not always see eye to eye with the political leaders in tribes, this could be a way to take the heat off the MIAC.

Soon after this a question from the author of this article brought the subject back to the Lincoln Mounds. The question was for Bob Sharlin of Bloomington. Sharlin was challenged on the issue of Bloomington’s stewardship of its mounds. It was pointed out that Bloomington has strict protections for its mounds, and that any alterations to the mounds must be approved by the Historic and Natural Resources Commission. But the commission no longer exists. When approval of recent archaeological survey on the Lincoln Mounds was given, no citizen of Bloomington would have known that the approval allowed for any action at all up to destruction of the mound. It was suggested that stewardship had a life cycle and that it should be re-examined periodically to see if it is working as intended.

In response to these statements Bob Sharlin stated that Bloomington’s stewardship responsibility involved informing property owners, based on recommendations of the “acting state archaeologist.” As for the Historic and Natural resources Commission, Sharlin stated that it was true the commission did not exist any more as a separate body, but the city council has the power to carry out its duties.

Further and more revealing discussion of the Lincoln Mounds came in subsequent comments.

A Plea for Understanding

The most revealing statements were from Jim Jones, the staff person from the Indian Affairs Council who supervised the actions of archaeologists in Bloomington. Jones, who was involved in planning the workshop, had not made any public statements in the workshop, beyond participating in the same small group discussions that other participants had. It is not known why he chose this moment to get up and speak. There had been no criticism of MIAC's role at the Lincoln Mounds during the workshop, but one motivation appears to have been to defend Bob Sharlin from criticism for anything that occurred in Bloomington. Jones stated that the Indian Affairs Council had led the way in Bloomington, so the responsibility was not Bob Sharlin’s. But Jones also gave a passionate defense of the Indian Affairs Council.  He stated that there was not one person in the room who did not think that what was done at the Lincoln Mounds was moral and right.

He noted that the Environmental Assessment Worksheet or EAW done in Bloomington did not mention the presence of the Lincoln Mounds. On this point Jones may have been referring to the Alternative Urban Areawide Review or AUAW, done in 2002 of the Airport South District in Bloomington, the area including the Lincoln Mounds. Jones also went on to blame the State Archaeologist for some of what occurred in planning for the Lincoln Mounds site. The main concern of the OSA appeared to have been about how to not include the MIAC in the discussions with the developer. The two-month discussion involving the site in the spring of 2004 was about what mechanism would be used to evaluate the site. Jones charged that the OSA wanted to bring in heavy machinery to authenticate the site. Jones reported that when this came up he said “No More!” He said that he insisted on a more careful examination of the site.

Jones stated that when it comes to burial sites like this there is a fine line between what is right and what is wrong. He has been involved in making decisions on these issues for many years. He named a number of cases where he has had to deal with it by himself with little public support: No one was there in the case in Spicer, or at Bois Forte, or in Jones’s own back yard in dealing with his family’s cemetery when it was endangered by a property owner. No one was there when he had to recover remains from the Medical Examiner’s office. The only difference between what happened at the Lincoln Mounds and what has happened in many cases in the past involving the State Archaeologist’s office is that the archaeology there was controlled and involved careful hand excavation. Jones concluded by promising that at other times there would be more opportunity to discuss the issue.

Jones’s comments prompted Tom Ross to give an equally passionate and spirited defense of what happened at the Lincoln Mounds and the role of the Indian Affairs Council in it. Ross noted that it would be possible to debate the Lincoln Mounds issue for a long time. Perhaps it needed a workshop of its own. But it was also important to get back on track with the main issues of the workshop so that things like the Lincoln Mounds did not occur again.

Ross stated that the Lincoln Mounds experience was difficult for all those involved. They got fired at from all sides. But there were some good things that happened in Bloomington. There was respect given to the remains found. Elders were involved in guiding the excavation. Random access to the site was prevented. The archaeologists acted carefully and respectfully in dealing with the remains. To those whose noses were bent out of shape by not having the information he stated that it was his understanding that efforts were made to inform people but those efforts were rebuffed.

On this point it is possible that Ross was referring to a claim made by Jim Jones in September that when Mendota Dakota leaders Jim Anderson and Michael Scott first came to the site in Bloomington in late August, he told them that he would inform them of what had been uncovered if they would not go ahead with what they appeared to be doing, bringing publicity to the excavation, but that they rebuffed this offer. No other such offers have come to light.

Ross wondered about the outcry over the Lincoln Mounds. Why there and not in other places? Were outstate mounds less important than those in Bloomingtom? What occurred at the Lincoln Mounds has occurred elsewhere but without any outcry. And why were questions not raised about the role of the State Archaeologist in relation to the Lincoln Mounds? The State Archaeologist bore some responsibility for what happened. Ross insisted that questions should be asked about that agency.

Ross raised the question of what is stewardship for. Was it for one band of Indians or one group of people? Ross stated that he had come a long way in his thinking. He no longer believed that stewardship was for Indians alone. He believed that burial sites must be interpreted as well as being protected. Ross stated: “No matter what development occurs, the sites of my relations will be affected. . . . There were civilizations here and people thousands of years ago.” Ross said that he would like to see that story interpreted and explained to a wider audience.

Ross said that he was not advocating that any burials be opened. But Indian people must manage it when it occurs. Many Indian people would say that the best policy was to leave human remains alone. But sometimes it was too late to say leave it alone. In such cases what should be done? This is what the Indian Affairs Council was faced with in relation to the Lincoln Mounds.

Ross stated that stewardship is a collective and individual responsibility. There is no set policy around the country about how to handle situations like this. That’s what needs to come of the workshop. There was a time in Minnesota when there were two agencies trying to hold the line, but now it was only the Indian Affairs Council doing so. Everyone, including the City of Bloomington, MIAC, and the tribal communities did their level best in the situation in Bloomington. In the future, the situation would get more difficult in relation to conflicts between Native sites and development. People had suggested that if more tribes had tribal preservation officers (TPO) this would solve the problem of protect Native sites. But this would not solve all problems. Rarely do TPOs get congratulated for doing their jobs.

We Had No Choice

Ross’s statement received warm applause from the audience. No further questions were raised about the situation in Bloomington. It is hard to say what each audience member drew from his words or those of Jim Jones before him in relation to the events in Bloomington. However among those who have followed the issue closely, there could be only one conclusion: The rumors were true.

As noted earlier, it has never been assumed in these articles that the rumors were true. Yet many of the ways chosen by the MIAC to defend itself in relation to charges about the Bloomington site have not been to directly deny the rumors about what has been found at the Lincoln Mounds. Instead the agency, without actually revealing much directly, has chosen to try to mitigate the responses of individuals to the various allegations that exist about what has been found at the site. Typically in doing so, the MIAC communicates as much by what it does not say as by what it does.

The messages given out by the MIAC officials and supporters at the Izatys workshop again provided no denial of the rumors. But the statements made are only understandable if one assumes that the rumors or something like them are true. Why would Tom Ross say that one purpose of the workshop was to prevent other cases like the Lincoln Mounds if nothing much was found in Bloomington? Why would officials bother to defend themselves so passionately over “what happened in Bloomington,” if only a few scattered, disturbed remains were discovered there? If anything, the actual details of what happened may be worse than anything alleged in the rumors.

In response to criticism over what happened in Bloomington, the MIAC has advanced several lines of argument, both at the events at Izatys and on previous occasions. These lines of argument can be summarized as follows:

Many of these points are simply a matter of personal opinion and ethics and there is no one right response to them. If a consensus of Dakota people agrees with Joe Williams that respectful removal of remains is a form of protection of graves, then what happened at the Lincoln Mounds may very well be acceptable and beyond debate. However, if stewardship of such sites extends beyond Native communities to a larger public, should not the concerns of other supporters of preservation be taken into account in such decision making?

On a few other points there are questions of fact that will ultimately be sorted out. On point 5, it is still unclear the degree to which tribes actually supported the decisions of MIAC in relation to the Lincoln Mounds. At the same time, on point 1, it is difficult to see, given the information that has been revealed, how the State Archaeologist can be held responsible for the decisions made by the MIAC in exercising its authority over Indian burial places. For this reason, the most problematic and puzzling of the defenses given by the MIAC is in point 2, the statement that there was no other choice in how to handle the Lincoln Mounds. Officials have said repeatedly that at some point it became too late to do anything but excavate and remove the remains for later reburial.

When did it come to be too late? There are various theories that could explain when this happened. One theory would be that the MIAC is arguing that the lack of mention of the Lincoln Mounds in the EAW—that is, the AUAW—meant that the agency’s hands were tied.

In fact the AUAW report did include references to the Lincoln Mounds. On page 93, for example, it was noted that during the Ceridian Project, remains of the Lincoln Mounds had been located. The AUAW called for discussion with MIAC, OSA, and “appropriate Native American tribes,” should evidence of archaeological sites be located. A comment letter written by the State Archaeologist, contained in the AUAW, mistakenly did not mention the Lincoln Mounds—as Jim Jones has suggested—among the locations listed as being known to contain burial sites. But the letter did note that a means existed for dealing with remains when found:

At the same time, the City of Bloomington’s mitigation plan for the Airport South district contained the following statement:

In what way do these statements in any way restrict the MIAC in carrying out its powers under state law regarding Indian cemeteries? In fact, the additional level of approval necessary—the creation of a mound management plan—would seem to provide the MIAC with a means for encouraging developers to preserve mounds rather than destroying them.

Another possibility, and one that has been proposed in earlier articles in this series, is that MIAC officials, in the spring of 2004, reached the conclusion that they would treat Lincoln Mounds 1, 2, and 3 in the same way that they had done at portions of the Lincoln Mounds on the nearby Ceridian property in 1998, by removal and reburial. This decision was reached prior to any real understanding of what might be found at the mounds and the condition of any remains. Thus, the MIAC may have come to some agreement with the developer, in which the developer agreed to pay for a full and respectful excavation in return for the right to develop the property without any inhibiting burial mounds.

In this scenario, the later finding of over twenty human remains of adults and children was completely unexpected. But by then, because of the agreement with the developer, which the developer insisted on holding the MIAC to, and which the MIAC was reluctant to breach, meant that it was too late to seek another outcome. It was certainly too late, from the point of view of the MIAC, by the end of August when the Mendota Dakota got wind of the excavation and confronted Jim Jones at the site.

What is not evident in the “We had no choice” explanation is whether the MIAC actually had choices that it was unwilling to consider. For one thing, the developer was quoted in a newspaper in August saying that while he wanted to build at the site of the Lincoln Mounds, he did not have to. Was this spin on his part or was the developer actually willing to consider other alternatives? Perhaps it was the MIAC that was unwilling to ask him to do otherwise for fear of jeopardizing future relationships with developers. In other words it became too late to do anything else when the MIAC decided it had invested too much in the relationship with McGough to do anything else.

There does not seem to be a legal reason to suggest that it ever became too late for the MIAC to seek another outcome. Since reburial is still possible on the sites where remains have been found, it may not yet be too late to push for a respectful reburial at the Lincoln Mounds site itself. Under state law, the MIAC is the only agency that has the power to allow the removal of Indian cemeteries. The law (Minnesota Statute 307.08, sub. 8), reads as follows:

No removal of an Indian cemetery can be done without the approval of the MIAC. That being the case, the agreement to the removal of the remains at the Lincoln Mounds was a matter of choice on the part of the agency. What criteria did the MIAC use in exercising this discretion over burial mounds? For that matter, did the MIAC make any efforts to seek a purchase or protection of this large Indian burial ground by the state, once it learned that there were many remains located there?

One of the most upsetting thing for many is the belief that in relation to the Lincoln Mounds, the MIAC made some kind of an arrangement with the developer, without real knowledge or understanding, to allow for the removal of a large number of human remains, in return for an arrangement for the developer to pay for an archaeological survey.

While some developers may seem to want this kind of guarantee or pre-approval prior to agreeing to pay for surveys, agreements of this kind do not allow for the discovery of new information and the need to protect sites discovered during surveys. The purpose of archaeological surveys when undertaken in relation to developments, especially when done under environmental reviews, is to provide information on which to make decisions about what can and should be done in relation to particular pieces of property. Such decisions are very much affected by the objects and data uncovered during the survey. In the case of the Lincoln Mounds, it appears that all the decisions were made prior to the survey. Thus, no amount of bones or anything else could change the planned development.

The events at Izatys show that the MIAC very much wants people to accept the idea that it acted sensibly, morally, and consistently, making the only reasonable, or possible choice, in carrying out its authority in relation to the Lincoln Mounds. But acceptance may be hard to find except among those predisposed to take MIAC’s side of things already, until the agency tells the whole story of what was found and how it was treated and why. Acceptance can only come with understanding. But even with understanding there may not be universal support of MIAC's decisions by Native people and by other supporters of preserving Native sacred sites.

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