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The Death of a Mound

Politics and Human Remains in Minnesota

Part 7

 -March 11, 2005-

The Lincoln Mounds Cover-up

 

Bruce White

 

It is a bright, sunny day in early March 2005. The remaining snow is hard and crusted, but the McGough company’s construction season is underway at the site of the former Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington, Minnesota, a few blocks from the Mall of America. Trucks pass in a steady stream in and out of a fenced enclosure where the mounds 1, 2, and 3 used to be, hauling out dirt, then dumping it in a new, growing mound on the north side of the nearby light-rail tracks.

Where the remains of twenty, perhaps many more, Dakota ancestors, including adults and children, once lay buried in a partial circle, the ground has been scraped clean by archaeologists working under the supervision of the only agency given the power in Minnesota to allow an Indian burial ground to be removed. McGough employees began construction grading on what will be a $700 million development as a result of a letter sent on February 14 by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) to the city of Bloomington, which recommended that “the proposed development plans of McGough Development precede [sic].”

This letter is a far cry from what was promised the City of Bloomington back in July 2004, when the city gave permission for an archaeological “field survey” or “initial archaeological hand survey including hand excavations of intact soils” at the site of three of the Lincoln Mounds group known to exist on the McGough property. The permission granted by the city included as a “condition of approval” that a “field survey report on site findings, including mound management plan recommendations, be submitted to the Planning Manager [of the City of Bloomington] prior to the issuance of grading permits related to construction activities.” Instead of providing the City of Bloomington with details of the work done at the Lincoln Mounds, the letter submitted to the city by MIAC on February 14 provided evidence only of a continuing cover-up.

 

 

 A truck is filled with dirt from the site of Lincoln Mounds 1, 2, and 3,

March 2, 2005. The view is looking west from 34th St.

 

 A Steward of Mounds

Bloomington is in the heart of Dakota history and culture. The City of Bloomington has for many years prided itself on being a good steward of the mound groups found in city limits. City ordinances protect mounds and other historic and prehistoric sites from alteration without the issuance of a “certificate of appropriateness” by the City Council. But based on the July 19 approval by the city for this initial hand survey archaeologists working for the developer and under the supervision of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council excavated and removed all of Lincoln Mounds 1, 2, and 3.

At the beginning, the McGough company, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and the City of Bloomington may have intended that a “field survey report on site findings” and “mound management plan recommendations” would be filed with the City of Bloomington, prior to the issuance of grading permits. But at some point along the way, the expectations of the city were evidently lowered considerably. By October 2004 a Bloomington City official suggested that the city might only receive a letter or some other brief document from the archaeologists doing the survey. Survey work at the site ended in November. At a City Council meeting on December 6, 2004, the council passed a final approval for McGough’s project on the site of the mounds, subject to fifteen separate conditions. Included was the following:

After this, Bloomington officials sought letters from both the Office of State Archaeologist and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in order to fulfill the conditions of approval for the development. State Archaeologist Mark Dudzik wrote a letter of February 11, 2005, which fell well short of being a letter of site approval for development. Dudzik stated:

Dudzik’s letter reiterated his position that he was not responsible for the decisions made about the Lincoln Mounds. As it happens, the letter written by the MIAC does seem to support his assertion. On February 14, 2005, writing to a Bloomington official, a MIAC official, speaking for the agency, took full credit for what happened at the Lincoln Mounds. What follows is transcribed exactly as written:

There are many problems with this letter. To begin with, it is not clear how this letter from MIAC can be substituted for a report of work by Summit Envirosolutions, even if all that work was done under the supervision of MIAC. The condition attached to the original approval for the survey was binding on the McGough company and Summit, not on MIAC. No record has been found of a public decision made by the City of Bloomington which specifically supersedes the requirement that a survey report be submitted to the city. Nonetheless, a Bloomington city official stated on March 7:

 A light-rail train turns north on 34th Street. The mound of dirt removed from

 the Lincoln Mounds site is shown at right. Photo taken March 2, 2005

 

What is a Field Survey Report?

Archaeologists in particular will find it difficult to believe that a letter of site approval for development can be confused with a field survey report. Were it so, many archaeologists with unwritten survey reports would have completed their contracts long ago. More typically a field survey report will contain precise details about the archaeological work undertaken. In response to a question on this point, the State Archaeologist Mark Dudzik stated on March 7, that though the phrase did not have a precise definition, such a report “would be, in effect, the final report of investigations which details methods, techniques, results, etc., for a specific archaeological field investigation.”

Another archaeologist, consulted recently, stated that if a project is on a tight timeline, a letter may sometimes be submitted in lieu of the final report. But such letters will typically provide a great many details about the work done and will promise a full report at a later time. And such letters will be written by those who have done the work, not the some other agency like the MIAC.

In preparing reports, archaeologists who work in Minnesota are expected to follow particular standards laid out by the State Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. Secretary of Interior. These are the very standards cited in the Work Plan written by Summit Envirosolutions in July 2004, describing what the firm planned to do at the Lincoln Mounds. Among other things this work plan described the report that would be written during the project:

It may be claimed that what is described here is the final report for the project, not the field survey report that was required to be submitted to the City of Bloomington. It could be argued that the Summit project at the Lincoln Mounds went well beyond the survey described in the certificate of appropriateness and that therefore, in order to fulfill that certificate it may only be necessary to submit minimal information about the fact that archaeological resources were found and were dealt with.

However, the July Work Plan described above is the very same work plan that was filed with the City of Bloomington to record the procedures to be followed in working on the Lincoln Mounds. Filing this document was another condition required by the city for receiving the permit. Any official or citizen of Bloomington could have understandably drawn the conclusion that the report mentioned in the Work Plan was the very same one that would be submitted to the city prior to the granting of grading permits on the construction project.

It should be remembered that the destruction of mounds is exactly what the provisions of Bloomington city code is designed to prevent. Under certain cirucmstances a "certificate of appropriateness," giving a permission to alter a mound, may be granted by the city. It is within the purview of the City of Bloomington to attach conditions to the permission it grants to do archaeology or anything else to a mound, a burial place, or to any other historic and prehistoric sites. In this case, the city gave permission for an initial archaeological survey, after which those doing the survey would report back to the city with mound management plan recommendations. The city would then have the opportunity to review this information and draw its own conclusions prior to issuing final grading permits for McGough’s project.

Instead, Summit did an initial survey, found several mounds with intact remains, and subsequently excavated the site and removed all remains found without receiving any further approval for this from the city. Having done so, Summit has submitted no report of what it did and no mound management plan recommendations. Instead the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council submitted a letter lacking any details of what happened at the Lincoln Mounds and recommended that work proceed on construction. The fact that Summit went beyond the limited scope of the permission it received to carry out an archaeological survey should not be used as an excuse for failing to report to the City of Bloomington about what it found and what it did at the Lincoln Mounds.

Where the idea for substituting a mere letter for a survey report came from—and why—is not known. It is certainly consistent with the actions of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which has steadfastly resisted public discussion of the details of the Lincoln Mounds. If the details of what was done at the Lincoln Mounds could be kept from the City of Bloomington, then the wider world of interested parties would also remain ignorant, and this was in keeping with the MIAC’s apparent strategy to cover up what happened.

The letter of approval for development written by MIAC on February 14 communicates very few facts. It does, however, communicate a few beliefs. One is that in taking apart the Lincoln Mounds archaeologists working with MIAC were “recovering” remains that will be “returned” somewhere, though not to the piece of ground from which they were originally taken. The implication is that this was an unavoidable act, but one that honors the Dakota ancestors whose remains were removed. Some Dakota people may share this belief.

The letter also fosters the idea that Bloomington leads the state in protecting remains. That may be true in the back yards of the many Bloomington residents who have been prevented from building because of mounds on their property, but it seems that developers of $700-million-dollar projects can write their own mound management plans. In this case it may be that city officials themselves have collaborated with MIAC and the developer in circumventing the city’s own code. At the very least the actions in relation to the Lincoln Mounds suggest that no one, including McGough, Summit, MIAC, and the City of Bloomington itself, has much respect for the protections for historic and prehistoric sites written into the city’s code.

This is distressing enough, but the MIAC letter also raises the prospect that the agency may attempt to make sure that the whole truth about the Lincoln Mounds will never be known. If the agency, with the cooperation of Bloomington officials, can circumvent the conditions of a city permit, what further legal requirement binds the agency to openness about the details and consequences of its actions at the Lincoln Mounds?

  A Code of Silence

It is true that the Work Plan signed by OSA, MIAC and McGough in July 2004 does specify that a technical report will be prepared someday to discuss the results of the field work. But it seems likely that MIAC can find some creative way to avoid making this report public, even when completed. For example, the authentication portion of the report required by the State Archaeologist can be submitted without the other portions of the report, thus avoiding making public the bulk of the work. Perhaps an MIAC representative could read the complete report at the Summit Envirosolutions offices, without obtaining a copy, thus avoiding the provisions of the Minnesota Data Practices Act that would require the report be made public if it is in the agency’s possession. After all, throughout the summer of 2004, while the MIAC supervised this major archaeological fieldwork, MIAC officials took no notes, exchanged no emails, and accumulated no documents about that work.

An unknown quantity in all of this is how archaeologists would react to a vow of longterm silence. The Lincoln Mounds must have been a fascinating project for them. Excavations of burial mounds for research purposes have not been permitted in Minnesota since the 1970s. To be able carry out this work at a site that demonstrates such forethought on the part of those who buried their loved ones there must have been especially intriguing from an archaeological point of view. To do so with the blessing of at least one Dakota spiritual leader, as reported in earlier installments of this series, must have made the archaeologists feel as though their work was not only justified but appreciated. To be told at the end that they may not talk about it to anyone would be hard to accept.

It seems likely that at some point an archaeologist is going to break the code of silence about the Lincoln Mounds and finally tell the story. Perhaps that person will be motivated by what one archaeologist recently described as “professional obligation for archaeologists to publicly report their work in a format that is comprehensive and scientific.” Otherwise, this archaeologist stated

Perhaps the main question that remains in all of this is why the MIAC is so afraid of making the truth known about the Lincoln Mounds. Now that the construction work has started, what is to be gained by the secrecy? If what happened at the Lincoln Mounds was moral and right, as a MIAC official stated at an event at Izatys in early February, why is it not possible to show why and how that is the case?

One overriding factor may be the culture of the agency, which sees itself as not accountable to anyone except the elected leaders of federally recognized tribes. In carrying out the power given the agency under state law over Indian burial grounds, agency officials do not seem to feel that they have to justify their actions or provide documentation to anyone aside from these tribal representatives.

Even if the agency has the discretion to do what it did, this does not remove the requirement under state law that the agency document its official acts, in the same way any other state-funded or publicly funded agency in Minnesota has to do, for the benefit of all the state's citizens, not merely Indian people or archaeologists. As stated in Minnesota Statute 15.17:

Clearly, at this point, because of the secrecy practiced by MIAC officials, it is impossible to obtain a full and accurate knowledge of how and why MIAC acted the way it did in relation to Lincoln Mounds 1, 2, and 3 in Bloomington. And the evidence is that MIAC does not feel an obligation to change the situation.

Another motivating factor for MIAC may be to protect the developer, who may not want known the exact number of Dakota ancestors removed from the site of a parking garage and high-density housing project. It could be that the developer believes that the news would inhibit people from wanting to live and work there. And in that case, and if the facts of what happened at the Lincoln Mounds are far worse than any of the rumors that abound—if, for example, the number of remains found was forty, fifty, or sixty and that those remains have turned out to be associated with a tragic event such as the Conflict of 1862—then there may be a strong incentive for a continuing, long-term cover-up.

Still, this site is a beautiful place, one where many people may want to live regardless of the controversies. It is on the edge of a bluff looking out over the broad and scenic valley of the Minnesota River, a region at the heart of Dakota belief and history, a valley now in the heart of development.

 

 The site of Lincoln Mounds 1 and 2 looking north

from Old Shakopee Road, March 2, 2005.

 

Dialogue

While grading continues at the Lincoln Mounds site, in some spruce trees across the road a pair of chickadees exchanges calls. They, at least, are getting some answers.

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