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Reflections on Sacred Places


Note: This is the second in a series of personal accounts, by people of various backgrounds, commenting on their own experiences and their own feelings about issues related to sacred places.

 -June 10, 2005-

Burial Mounds and Ethics

Debbra Myers

These words are found in the Code of Professional Standards of the Archaeological Institute of America. I ponder their meaning and the meaning of other words found in this code for what happened in Bloomington, Minnesota, last year.

The burial mound known as Lincoln Mounds on 34th Avenue and 80th Street in Bloomington has been in my mind and heart since August of 2004. We were in another state enjoying the pow-wow trail, when the call came. A construction company had found Native American bones while removing top soil, at a construction site in Bloomington. A chill went up my spine. We have been a part of a community of people for the last six years fighting the systematic desecration and removal of sacred sites in the area where the two rivers meet, Mdote Minisota, the center of the universe for the Dakota people. This is a well documented area, of sacred sites and burial mounds for the Dakota people. Fort Snelling is a small distance down the river, the site of the concentration camp in the winter of 1862. Many Dakota people died that winter and were buried down river along the bluffs. Could this be their burial mound?

The site of the Lincoln Mounds, showing a tent set up by archaeologists at Mound 1,

 August 2004, Debbra Myers photograph.

It was rumored there were many bodies. Reports of adults buried in a circle and children in the center, all denied but later corroborated. We were told it was a done deal; they were putting in a condominium with underground parking. It couldn�t possibly be true! After all the pain and suffering the Dakota people had been through with the desecration of the four Sacred Oaks at Camp Coldwater Spring, near Fort Snelling, in the December 1999, and the threat of development on Oheyawahi, the sacred place also known as Pilot Knob, across the Minnesota River from Bloomington, in Mendota Heights.

I think about that Code of Professional Standards for archaeologists. It goes on to say: �Archaeologists also have specific responsibilities to the local communities where they carry out research and field work, as well as to their home institutions and communities. . . . Professional archaeologists should be actively engaged in public outreach through lecturing, popular writing, school programs, and other educational initiatives. . . . Plans for field work should consider the ecological impact of the project and its overall impact on the local communities. . . . Professional archaeologists should not participate in projects whose primary goal is private gain. . . . For field projects, archaeologists should consult with appropriate representatives of the local community during the planning stage, invite local participation in the project, and regularly inform the local community about the results of the research. . . . Archaeologists should respect the cultural norms and dignity of local inhabitants in areas where archaeological research is carried out. . . . The legitimate concerns of people who claim descent from or some other connection with, cultures of the past must be balanced against the scholarly integrity of the discipline. A mutually acceptable accommodation should be sought.�

It appears that there are no ethics in this country. Why are there such denial and secrets surrounding this dig at the Lincoln Mounds? Why have the direct descendants of the Mdewakanton Mendota Dakota people been denied access to the very information that is a matter of moral obligation and ethics? Michael Scott the chairman of the Mdewakanton Mendota Dakota was told his people where not consulted because they are not federally recognized. The ancestors know. Why does a government not recognize a people who have lived in the community of Mendota since before the Dakota Conflict in 1862? This is systematic genocide.

Where do the ethics start? When are the people digging up the ancestors� bones and hiding the results going to be held accountable? It will happen when the snarly delays and unexplainable things hold up the project, when the new tenants hear strange noises and their garage doors refuse to close or open, when the electrical systems fail, or perhaps when the windows blow out in storms.

How do these young people who participated in this project justify their actions? Where were the elders guiding them in their work? I have many unanswered questions, ones I feel will never be answered. But this I know: The spirits of the ancestors have been disturbed.

Last summer when we were keeping vigil at the Lincoln Mounds, late at night, there was a small Webber grill sitting about 20 feet away in the middle of the sidewalk. Suddenly, the lid to the grill flew off and landed upside down 4 feet away. It looked like an opening into the Underworld. The air was still as the smoke from the sacred fire rose up to the sky from the tipi flaps. We knew nothing would ever be the same. We were disturbing the spirits. Hours later a large 25 foot tree crashed to the sidewalk. No one was hurt. The police stationed across the street at the burial mound called the city crew for clean up, it was 10:00 pm. When the crew arrived two chain saw blades were broken, the crew was unable to cut and remove the tree.

The signs are there. Leave the ancestors where they are. This is a moral obligation, part of the archaeologists� ethical code. Where is the world�s lack of integrity headed? When young people are exposed to this moral decay, where is our future? Perhaps while shifting the bones of the ancestors the conscience of these people will be motivated to do what is right, to tell the truth.

Debbra Myers lives in Minneapolis and is a computer programmer and community activist.

The vigil at the Lincoln Mounds, August 2004, Debbra Myers photograph.