minnesotaHistory.net: a forum for discussing current events relating to the history of Minnesota

Reflections on Sacred Places

Note: This is the fourth 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.

 -July 11, 2005

Minnesota's Disappearing Mounds

Bruce White

Minnesota’s history was recorded first in places such as burial mounds. History is usually said to begin with narratives, especially written ones and by that measure burial mounds are prehistoric. But if history functions in part to communicate a respect for the past, a reverence for those who went before, and a clear sense of that people’s understanding of the place in which it lives, then history in Minnesota may have begun with the construction of the first mound.

There is no question that among the most endangered and most beautiful culturally important places in Minnesota today are the mounds along the rivers where for thousands of years people have buried their dead. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio in 2002, State Archaeologist Mark Dudzik pointed out that if you plotted the placement of burial mounds in southern Minnesota on a map overlay and then took away the original map, the arrangement of these mound locations would trace the course of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. This tracing continues to grow fainter, as more and more mounds disappear from the landscape.

Burial mounds were once a signature feature of the Minnesota landscape. They were often noted by early European travelers to the region. In June 1823, Major Stephen Long, traveling up the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers made frequent mention of the mounds along the river banks and bluffs. “Near our encampment of last evening there were several antique mounds of artificial structure arranged in nearly a right line along the margin of the river. They are of inconsiderable height but cover a large surface. . . . In this beautiful spot are located numerous indian mounds of high antiquity. . . . Crossed several small plains on which are seen ancient tumuli more numerous than I ever before witnessed.”

A mystery for such early travelers was just exactly who had built these mounds. The German artist Henry Lewis stated in the 1840s, describing the view at Wabasha, that “the countless mounds, enthroned on the hilltops like monuments of a long-gone race, form an immeasurable cordon along the blue horizon.” Many experts  speculated that the mounds had been built by a vanished race, a belief that persisted into the 20th century. But James E. Colhoun, who accompanied Stephen Long, in 1823, had already come to a conclusion which is now commonly accepted that the mounds were not the product of a vanished people but rather, had been built by the “immediate ancestors of the Indians or by a similar race of men [and women].”

The archaeologist Scott Anfinson has noted that there is a correlation between the location of burial mounds and the location of major Dakota population centers on the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Long after the mounds were first placed in the landscape, Dakota people continued to use them as burial places. The British traveler Jonathan Carver, at the time of his visit in 1766 to the cave just above the river in St. Paul, now commonly called Carver’s Cave, stated, with typical confusion: “At a little distance from this dreary cavern is the burying-place of several bands of the Naudowessie [Dakota] Indians: though these people have no fixed residence, living in tents, and abiding but a few months on one spot, yet they always bring the bones of their dead to this spot. . . .”

The cemetery to which Carver referred was likely the configuration of numerous mounds lining the bluff above the cave, a few of which are now protected in St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park.

The continuing use of mounds by the Dakota for burials until recent times was an indication of the persistent belief in mounds as sacred places, places for protecting the remains of loved ones. But it was the subject of annoyance to at least one archaeologist who thought of the mounds as remnants of ancient peoples, which he wished to excavate. A garbled account in the Minneapolis Journal in 1901 reported that the archaeologist M. V. Brewer (probably meant to refer to Jacob V. Brower) had complained that “the nineteenth-century Indian had small regard for the interests of science or the memory of prehistoric man.” It was reported that the archaeologist had been commissioned to explore the burial mounds at the former site of Kaposia in South St. Paul, Dakota County, Minnesota, a few miles south and across the Mississippi from Indian Mounds Park. However, the archaeologist “has abandoned the work as useless.” The reported explanation was that “within fifty or sixty years Indians have been making ‘intrusive burials’ in these mounds. They have broken into them and removed the bones, ornaments, and everything of historic value and have made room for their own dead.”

A view of Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul, around 1898, looking south

along the Mississippi River. Minnesota Historical Society.

Rather than being an accurate record of what had happened, this explanation may have simply been a stab at accounting for the fact that some burial mounds did not appear to have surviving burials in them. But modern Indian people and their desire to continue to use mounds as cemeteries were never the gravest danger to these mounds.

In a pamphlet published in 1974, Reinhold O. Werner described all the burial places of Kaposia located in the city of South St. Paul. The account is mainly a catalog of mounds long gone and a chronicle of their destruction. Many of the mounds were lost through excavation for sand and gravel. One set of eleven mounds known as the Silk Mounds  lay on a bluff east of the city’s municipal building. One of these mounds was 180 feet long, 42 feet wide at the widest, and three feet high  Werner wrote that these mounds were the largest recorded burial places in South St. Paul. “This must have been a very impressive sight along the brow of this bluff to see those eleven mounds in a row.” The northernmost mounds were removed for a sandpit, the rest of the mounds were taken out when nearby streets were graded and homes were built.

A recent compendium entitled Minnesota’s Indian Mounds and Burial Sites, by Constance M. Arzigian and Katherine P. Stevenson, published in 2003, states that Minnesota “has 11,000 recorded prehistoric and early historic Native American earthworks and burial mounds,” but also records in excruciating detail how thousands of them have been destroyed through plowing, road construction, vandalism, and archaeology.  Today there are strong protections for burial places in Minnesota Statutes.  But though the law prohibits the destruction of cemeteries it provides no sure means for their preservation. Under pressure for development, ways are still found to destroy mounds. Not fully valued as a part of the present-day landscape, mounds continue to disappear.


What reasons do people have for caring about the burial places of people long dead, individuals they may never have known? With communities under assault it is not hard to find an explanation. If a community’s very existence is in question and its tie to traditional homelands is denied, then protection of cemeteries is a question of justice, not merely sentiment. The treatment of human remains and burial places is a reflection of the way the living group of which they are a part. If the living group is treated badly, the treatment of the community’s remains will reflect that fact.

In 1914, an Ojibwe couple named Mr. and Mrs. Joe La Vierge lived next to a cemetery at Superior, Wisconsin, on Wisconsin Point, a spit of land stretching part way across the mouth of the St. Louis River on Lake Superior, near Duluth. They had lived in this area—part of what was known as Fond du Lac, the western end of Lake Superior—for 40 years and were keepers of the cemetery. According to documents in A Forever Story: The People and Community of the Fond du Lac Reservation, edited by Thomas D. Peacock, more than 200 people representing more than seven generations were buried there. In 1914, officials of a railroad company claimed title to the land, wishing to use it for “commercial purposes.” Despite strong opposition from many Indian people, the federal government collaborated with the railroad company in the removal of the La Vierge family, along with forty other Ojibwe, and the cemetery. Frank Drew, a spokesman for those in opposition to cemetery removal said to a newspaper reporter:

“The white men have stolen the Indian land from them. Now, not satisfied, they would tear up the bodes of the Indian dead in order that they may have even the last resting place of our ancestors.” A nephew of the La Vierges, Charles Drew said: “I will die fighting.” In response to such complaints the Indian agent at Cloquet, George W. Cross, stated that removal of the remains would be “a great deal more satisfactory,” because they could be more properly cared for in a new location in Superior. He invited “Indians who have relatives buried on Wisconsin Point” to write to him “giving the number of their relatives buried there” and stating their preference as to where the cemetery should be located in Superior.

Subsequently the cemetery was removed, but no commercial development was ever placed on the location, which remained in federal hands. The new cemetery is, ironically, now eroding into the Nemadji River. Now more than 90 years later an effort is underway by the Ojibwe community to get back the land and put the remains back in their original location. Sonny Peacock, chairman of the Fond du Lac band, stated in 2003 that his community remembered well the events of the cemetery removal. “We know the names of many of these people that were there. And we have a history of those individuals.” At the urging of Bob Miller, founder of the Superior Indian Center, the Fond du Lac band put in a bid to obtain the land from the General Services Administration.

The tie of the La Vierge family and of other Ojibwe from that area to the cemetery at Wisconsin Point is not difficult to understand. It has to do with a reverence for a people’s ancestors, but it also relates to a people’s long term connection to a place and the knowledge that that connection is suppressed and denied. It is a question of simple justice.


In the spring the grass lies matted, uncut and untouched, on the mounds in Indian Mounds Park, high above the big bend in the Mississippi, where the river completes its course through Minneapolis and St. Paul and heads south. This sacred site, documented for hundreds of years, has been contested for the generations. Today there are only six of several dozen mounds left. In recent years it took action by the Minnesota Legislature to prevent intrusion by a local power company that would have marred the area of the park and the mounds.

Once deemed sacred only by Indian people, these mounds have come to be respected by the community in which they are located. The six mounds are now surrounded by iron fencing. Signs read: “Indian Burial Sites” and ask visitors not to enter the enclosure or walk on the mounds.

The fencing has not always been there. Earlier generations of visitors climbed the mounds for the view and picnicked on the grass. Old photographs show walkways laid out in a spiral on several mounds, and other irregular paths worn into the slope from frequent climbing by visitors. For European-Americans there may have been no sense that these mounds were in any way sacred or that even if they were, that there was anything that ought to prevent climbing, sitting, and eating. For Dakota people mounds like this are sacred both as burial places and as special places in the landscape. For both reasons mounds are believed to be places that should be revered and treated carefully.

This is not to say that Indian people in all places agree on exactly how mounds should be treated. Differences depend in part on the context in which the mounds are located. The impressive Manitou Mounds—located above at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, “the place of the long rapids” on the Rainy River, on the Canadian side of the Minnesota-Ontario border—are not fenced like the mounds in St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park. One difference may be that these mounds are on the grounds of the Rainy River First Nation visitor center, on land controlled by the this Ojibwe community. This context protects the mounds from the desecrations that might occur in a busy city park.

The conflict between a so-called utilitarian view of mounds and a sacred view is evident in a recent controversy in the town of Chaska on the Minnesota River in Carver County, Minnesota. In early May 2005, the city came to a wrenching decision to put a rope barrier around the largest of three mounds in the city’s park during special events such as the city’s Taste of Chaska celebration. As a result of efforts by of a city resident, John Varone, and a Native person, Wally Ripplinger, and other members of the Chaska Human Rights Commission, the city council voted 3-1 in favor of taking this step to educate the public about how to properly respect the mound.

The actions were taken because residents continue to climb the mound and sit on it. In past years a veteran’s group had placed a stone speaker’s platform on top of the mound and had used it during public events. The platform was removed in 2003, but the mound was still treated simply as high spot in the park. The Chaska Herald stated in an editorial: “We would all be taken aback if we visited a relative’s grave and found a stranger sitting on top, enjoying a corn dog. Yet, hundreds of residents walk over the mounds during every city event. Their hearts certainly aren’t filled with malice. They just don’t know that the mounds probably hold the remains of our first residents. The fences will help solve the problem, although all three mounds should be cordoned off, not just the largest one. . . . It’s an educational opportunity.”

The only city official opposing the plan was Chaska’s mayor, who objected that the plan was “not the way to accomplish education.” He said that cordoning off the mounds would “create an ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ atmosphere.”

Wear and tear on one of the mounds in St. Paul's Indian Mounds Park, around 1920.

August E. Hansen photograph in Minnesota Historical Society.

It is possible that some non-Indian people visiting Chaska or Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul, would have an “ours and theirs” experience, a sense of being kept out of a place marked off as part of someone’s else’s sacred beliefs. It might be argued that the fence separates the viewer from the place, undermining a sense of identification necessary to persuade the ignorant to aid in the protection of the sacred site. But the same might be said about rules that protect a cathedral such as Notre Dame in Paris. Visitors are welcome there to view a beautiful place, to pray, to contemplate, to photograph, but not to throw frisbees or have picnics.


What does it mean to say that something is sacred? In many ways it is simply another way to say that it is very important to a lot of people and should be treated reverently. Beyond that there is a lot of disagreement. Explanations about what general principles define sacred places differ. The consensus on definitions of sacredness varies from people to people, group to group, and generation to generation. For one generation, America’s Civil War battlefields were sacred ground, to be left alone, but for another, they were development properties.

It is not necessary to walk on a mound or dig it up to experience its beauty, to appreciate its graceful form. Mounds are beautiful in their shape and form and in their placement in the landscape. It must be believed that those who built the mounds had a highly developed sense of beauty, creating something comparable to the landscaping done in European and American cemeteries, but simpler and more restrained. Mounds have a beauty and consoling power, which provides yet another reason to preserve them even if it cannot be proven that there are human remains within them.

But the form of all kinds of Indian cemeteries were difficult for many Europeans to appreciate. One visitor, the artist Charles Lanman, described a cemetery of bark gravehouses erected by Ojibwe at a lake in northern Minnesota: “What a strange contrast in every particular did it present to the grave-yards of the civilized world! Not one of all this multitude have died in peace, or with a knowledge of the true God. Here were no cultured monuments, no names, no epitaphs;--nothing but solitude and utter desolation.”

The lack of “cultured monuments” seemed to be the chief problem. In 1823 James E. Colhoun contrasted the mounds with monuments constructed by ancient empires in the Near and Far East, about which many oral legends were still current. In such circumstances, oral or written history recorded the “interesting circumstances” connected with these monuments and the monuments themselves were there to “confirm her [history’s] story.” But in the case of the mounds, history was mute. There were no written messages to tell the story. “So rude & concise are the epitaphs, so faint & time-worn are the characters on these toms, that we strain our eyes in vain, we can read no further than Hic jacet x x x x x [Here lies x x x x x.]

Colhoun understood one important main purpose of Indian cemeteries such as mounds—to proclaim through the Native American forms that they were in fact burial places, cemeteries, places to be respected, to be appreciated, to be left alone—though he regretted the lack of text in any language he could understand. But what more text is necessary than the beauty and form of a place that communicates its sacredness and its function as a cemetery, even to an outsider like Colhoun? This too is a kind of inscription on the landscape, one fairly clear in its meaning.

Those who built the mounds may have thought that it would be plain to everyone who saw them that they are sacred and should be left alone, except for further burials. But such beauty was not always enough to prevent modern visitors from climbing on the mounds in Indian Mounds Park. And it may be that until such time as everyone understands the sacredness of mounds, then fences will be necessary, even if they make some people feel as though they are left out of the experience.

Mounds are solemn places of burial. They are places of peace and beauty. They have a consoling power. They are inscriptions in the landscape describing the relationship of a people to the place in which they lived, a relationship that ought to be respected out of simple justice. Yet if all these attributes are misunderstood or not fully appreciated and society feels no need to protect mounds on their own merits, then consider the ultimate consequences of mound destruction: If mounds are not respected then no burial places are safe from destruction


To bury someone in the ground is to rely on the respect of strangers. As a historian and anthropologist I have no more right than anyone else to decide which burial places should be left alone, untouched. I do not have to make such decisions. I rely like all people on a common consensus that in general all burial places deserve to be treated with respect.

Only a few of my ancestors are buried in Minnesota. In this sense I come from a rootless people, not knowing what it is like to live in a place where many generations of my ancestors are buried. My father’s family was from Virginia, then West Virginia, Missouri, Kansas, and finally China, where my father was born to Baptist missionaries, almost a hundred years ago. My mother’s family was from Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Her father was a Methodist minister who received a new assignment every two years. My parents lived in Japan where I was born, then Denver, Manila, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Minnesota.

Until I was fifteen what I knew of Minnesota came from my parents’ stories and from occasional summer visits. My grandparents lived in Zimmerman, then a small town, now a northwestern suburb of the Twin Cities. After their deaths my grandparents were both buried in a small cemetery just north of town, their graves marked by a common stone monument. My father, who died when I was sixteen, is buried on a hill above a stream on a piece of woods he bought in 1960. This land where he is buried is the closest thing to a permanent home that my family ever owned, the closest thing to having roots. My father’s ashes were put in a pottery urn and were buried in the ground. Later on we planted several balsam trees to mark the spot.

My grandparents’ graves are well protected by being in an officially designated cemetery, marked by granite. It is not likely that these graves will be disturbed at least not soon. As for my father’s grave, I can control what happens to it only because my brother and I continue to own this piece of land. But what would happen if we did not own it anymore? Someone digging in the ground, finding the urn would come to the conclusion that this is a grave. But there is no assurance that his grave will be respected after I am gone, were this land to be bought by another family, people who never knew us.

How would I want the remains of my grandparents and my father to be treated if someone came upon them at some point in the future, in the midst of a construction project? My hope is that there would be some acknowledgment both of the gravity of what was being considered and of the fact that the place where these remains were buried had significance. My hope is that the remains of my family members would be honored and marked in some way at the place where their remains were found, rather than being removed and erased from the landscape to be reburied in some distant, secret location.

The case of the African Burial Ground in New York City is an instructive example. In 1991 the remains of 419 African Americans were found under a parking lot two blocks north of City Hall in Manhattan. The remains were removed from the ground by archaeologists, but twelve years later they were reburied on the same site at the African Burial Ground Memorial Site, where a permanent memorial is to be constructed. While the process through which all of this happened was contentious, the result seems to be a fitting solution for treating cemeteries of this kind, one that marks the presence and significance of those whose remains were found.

Respecting burial grounds and their place in the landscape is important regardless of whether we share the blood of those who are buried in these places. But still, it might be asked: Why should it matter to an Anderson when the grave of a Peterson is disturbed? Why should it matter to a Swede when the grave of an Irishman is scattered? Why should it matter to an Ojibwe when the bones of a Dakota are removed from the ground? Why should it matter to a developer named McGough when the bones of more than 20 prehistoric people, name unknown, are erased from the landscape?

The answer to all these questions is that all of us are diminished by the destruction of cemeteries even if those buried in them are unrelated to us by blood. When a society casually destroys burial places for whatever reason it means that the consensus that protects such places has broken down and needs repair. The disturbance of bones anywhere causes harm to every one of us. This is why the protection of American Indian burial mounds is important to society, to humanity, not simply to the presumed relatives of those in those mounds.

If we cannot protect these mounds because they are burial places, because they are beautiful, because they have a consoling power, because they are historic, then in the end, no cemeteries, no sacred places, no places of historic beauty are safe. Those countless mounds, forming a “cordon along the blue horizon” will have disappeared forever and a great deal more will be lost.