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Reflections on Sacred Places
Note: This is the first of a series of personal accounts, by people of various backgrounds, commenting on their own experiences and their own feelings about sacred places, including burial mounds.
-May 20, 2005-
1) Why do we need mounds?
2) How many mounds are enough?
3) Can't we get along with fewer?
Until I heard about the Lincoln Burial Mounds near the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, I thought our culture was done destroying burial mounds. For myself, I didn't know that I needed mounds. But an experience in my youth inadvertently allowed me to time travel, conceptually at least. My first journey was relatively brief. The trip was decades ago but the experience was profound. Before now, I've never spoken about it to anyone but my children.
One spring over 25 years ago, I caught a ride south of Duluth with a carload of basketball tournament celebrants. The kids, all about my age, in their late teens, were from a rural Minnesota town. Their high school team was to play in St. Paul that afternoon. They were all happy, friendly, and getting drunk. I appreciated the ride and the camaraderie but was thankful to eventually land my feet in a neighborhood near downtown St. Paul. The only problem was that I didn't quite know where I was. I grew up in a southern suburb of Minneapolis and knew almost nothing about St. Paul. I did know that the big river flowed through both cities.
Something sort of instinctual in me told me to head toward the Mississippi so I could figure out how to get to Minneapolis. I gained my bearings from the position of the sun and walked south, or the direction I hoped was south. Within a half hour I found myself on the high bank of the river. I was overtaken by an exhilarating vista of the Mississippi valley to the south, downtown St. Paul immediately to the west, and Minneapolis dwarfed in the distance, many miles further to the west. It was here at a rise in the riverbank, within a mile of downtown St. Paul, that I unexpectedly traveled in time.
Standing on the high bank, I felt the air thrum with the vibration and hum of industry. Beneath and in front of me, planes took off and landed at an airport built on the Mississippi flood plain. Hundreds of rail freight cars were being positioned and repositioned on dozens of adjacent train tracks. Many of the freight cars were marked as toxic, filled with chlorine, ammonia, tar, and petroleum solvents. Diesel powered tug boats pushed enormous rafts of barges containing cargos of coal and grain up and downstream. I was mesmerized by the cacophony and seeming chaos of traffic centered around the glistening tainted waters.
I was morbidly fascinated. Always very interested in nature, I knew that it had taken just 100 years to convert a pristine valley into what it had become. My young mind reeled, amazed and threatened by the grimy complexity that had overtaken the river. Not that long ago, and for millennia before, families could cup their hands to the sparkling water and drink deep.
Indian Mounds Park, St. Paul, 1993. Bill Braddock photo.
I looked at the landscape and noticed that I wasn't at quite the highest point on the riverbank. I wanted to see the view from the crest. As I hiked toward the high point I saw a handful of five or six soft looking grass-covered hills nestled, as though sculpted, at the peak. It dawned on me that the hills were burial mounds. Time began to telescope backwards.
As I stood among these beautiful grass covered sentinels, I could sense that countless men and women before me experienced the same awe and reverence looking out miles to the south and west at the vast river valley. Because of the mounds I started to visualize generations of family members in the past, losing loved ones and knowing exactly where they would lay the bodies to finally rest. I could see family and friends straining their muscles as they scraped at the surrounding earth, gathering handfuls of soil and placing it armload after armload, basket after basket, building these soft memorial tributes, some of them over fifty feet wide and fifteen feet high.
Fifteen feet high and fifty feet wide . . . armload upon armload. . . . The presence of the mounds delivered resounding context to the collision between nature and the constructs of the city.
Through the years I would end up spending many hours at the mounds, visiting maybe two or three times a year. It became a familiar place to my children who are all grown now. We would sometimes play near there, fly kites, have picnics. At times our family would spend time together simply lounging in the grass, talking, and enjoying the view.
After finding the mounds near downtown St. Paul I wanted to learn more about them. I found out they were part of a much larger Indian cemetery. I was exasperated when I learned that dozens of mounds in the same cemetery had been dug and destroyed in the 1800s; only a portion of the original cemetery was left standing, although pilfered. Early Minnesotans and scientists—antiquarians—dug the mounds for artifacts. Some people rationalized that the digging was okay because the remains had decomposed so thoroughly. It is hard for me to understand this point of view except as cultural arrogance, racism, or both. To my mind, burial mounds should be left alone no matter what stage of decomposition the remains are in. Whether the mounds are in the middle of "nowhere", whether they have already been robbed, or even if there is a forest of trees growing out of them they should be left alone. As nature composes and decomposes, doesn't the very earth of the mounds consist of the forbears? Considering what's at stake when a developer pushes to remove a cemetery or an individual grave, at the very least it should be an open and democratic process, not hidden from those who wish to honor and preserve.
However debasing the grave robbery and destruction of earlier times, I was thankful in my youth that the greedy and insensitive desecration of cemeteries was a thing of the distant past, not of the 1970s. I thought to myself, Thank god our culture has evolved beyond that type of selfish destruction. I never heard anything else about mound destruction until the removal of the burial mounds in Bloomington several months ago.
And the questions echo and change: Why do we need cemeteries? How many cemeteries are enough? Can't we get along with fewer cemeteries?
These are fair questions for a community to ask but it seems like we should consider the possibility of racial parity concerning the digging and relocation of the dead. This way we can be sure that it isn't just continuing cultural arrogance or racism that most of the graves being scattered in Minnesota are not ethnic European. If state politicians and city officials in Bloomington agree that it's okay to destroy cemeteries on private land that are in uneconomical locations, then why not agree to dig up all races of dead people equally, based on the ambitions and motives of politicians and real estate developers?
As adolescents growing up in Bloomington, my friends and I would occasionally roam a cemetery on Lyndale Avenue South, near106th street. This is just a few miles from the Lincoln burial mounds; I mean the former Lincoln burial mounds. We would look for the oldest inscriptions on the markers. We found a young girl's grave there, dated with a weathered white marble headstone from the mid 1800's. The gravestone said something like, "Susan, murdered by the Ojibwa Indians!" As kids we spent more time pondering that grave than any other. I'm sure there's no one alive today who was personally acquainted with the child buried there. Does this mean we can remove her remains? I recently learned that the missionary, Gideon Pond, is also buried in this cemetery. The location of the cemetery is prime real estate situated between Lyndale and the 35W freeway. If this European style cemetery is on private property, could its ancient graves also be as easily and secretly leveled by a Minnesota agency? What makes the difference? Text incised in stone? What makes it difficult for some Minnesotans to revere a final resting place that is not marked by text?
Given the financial pressures concerning casino revenue placed on Minnesota tribes from the governor, should Minnesotans stand by and watch while a state agency sanctions and supervises the removal of burial mounds? Given the glaring potential for financial conflict of interest, should we shrug and say, "But it was Indians who okayed and supervised the removal"?
Although the concept of people with blood from the First Nations making a decision like this might at first seem appealing, it is ultimately an overly simplistic idea. What reasonable person believes that there is a group of American Indians that can speak and act for all Indians regarding the destruction of an Indian cemetery? It is a superficial and perverse convenience for certain politicians and developers. Does someone believe that there could be a handful of agency appointed Germans or Norwegians who could speak for the values of all ethnic Germans or Norwegians in Minnesota? The idea is absurd. When we consider the removal of cemeteries we are discussing respect for all humans, not a single ethnic group.
It's easy to imagine how the political process would differ if the Bloomington graves of ethnic Europeans were put on the slate to be destroyed. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council is a state agency funded by the people of Minnesota. Although statute requires all agencies to provide documentation to keep the public informed, the MIAC has remained secretive throughout the process—prior to, during, and after the digging and displacement of the people buried at the Bloomington Lincoln mounds. Does real estate development reign supreme over cultural and spiritual heritage? I find myself wondering what monument, what memorial will be appropriate to remember those who silently erase history in order to build a parking lot?
Bill Braddock lives in Duluth Minnesota and teaches in the inner-city at the Adult Learning Center.