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The Death of a Mound

Politics and Human Remains in Minnesota

Part 9

 -August 8, 2005-

Laying to Rest the People of the Lincoln Mounds

Bruce White

The remains of at least 55 human beings dating from approximately 2,000 years ago were found at the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington, Minnesota, during a controversial archaeological excavation carried out in the summer and fall of 2004. Of these 13 were buried at the site of Mound 1 and 32 at Mound 2, both sets of remains buried in an oval or circular configuration of mostly bundle burials—that is, a group of bones bundled together for burial—with children in the center and with adults on the outside including individual adult males lying full length along two edges of each grouping. The rest of the remains were bundle burials spread between the two mounds.

This new information about the 2004 Lincoln Mounds project provides details about a site that was even larger and more significant than had been reported. The release of this information about the excavation completed last November has come about in part because on June 18, 2005, in what has been described as a meaningful ceremony, the remains of the 55 individuals were reburied, with soil from the original burial site, along the bluff above the Minnesota River, a few blocks from the Mall of America. The reburial lets these ancestors found at the site of Lincoln Mounds 1, 2, and 3 rest again in the ground, at a site some distance from their original burial place.

Also accomplished by the reburial was the removal of most of the reasons advanced for keeping the information about the Lincoln Mounds excavation from the public. As a result, various individuals involved closely in the project have begun to speak more openly about a project that was a profound experience for many of them. They now make clear the extent to which the fact of removing and reburying that many people and the controversy involved in the project caused some anguish for project participants. Conversely, and at the same time, they express pride at the way in which archaeologists and Native people worked together to salvage remains from a site using careful and respectful methods.

These feelings about the project are expressed in an unusual draft report written cooperatively by 11 project participants, including Dakota people, describing the Lincoln Mounds project carried out by the firm Summit Envirosolutions under the direction of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC). The report was submitted in late June to officials of federally recognized tribes and to state officials. It details the nature of what was found in the ground at the Lincoln Mounds. The report also describes, though in less detail, the decision-making process that resulted in the decision to remove the remains and rebury them, and the reburial process itself. The report was obtained as a result of a Minnesota Data Practices Act request. It is not known when the final report will be completed or what additions may be made to the final version.

The report is written to be more accessible to non-archeologists than most archaeological reports. Perhaps the most original aspect of the report is the rich commentary heading many of the chapters including statements by Dakota people involved in the project. Although there are no comments from the other Dakota people or members of the public who disagreed with the excavation, these statements deal with the controversy involved in removing remains and provide spiritual and modern-day cultural dimensions for what happened, what was found, and how it was all reburied.

Even in its rough draft form, the Lincoln Mounds report is impressive in its thoughtfulness and the effort shown to record the relevant facts. The task of putting this report together must have been a difficult one, not merely because of the many authors involved. A major difficulty faced by the authors is the ambivalence they feel about what happened at the Lincoln Mounds. The decision to remove and rebury was made with incomplete information, and although all insist that what was done was respectful and a model for cooperation and care, no one wants the Lincoln Mounds project to be a model for how to treat mounds and burial sites in the future. Instead the authors propose the project as a model only in cases where there is no choice but to remove and rebury.

The ambivalence of project participants puts the authors in the position of describing their own wonder at finding and recording a sacred burial site that so obviously showed the intention of a people to bury their loved ones in a deliberate fashion, while at the same time insisting, in effect, that other archaeologists should not have the occasion they have had to record and remove such cemeteries.

Such a position is difficult to maintain without a thorough and convincing explanation of how it was that the decision to remove and rebury was reached. On this point the report, and a recent conversation with Jim Jones of the MIAC, make clear that the preliminary decision to rebury was made in consultation with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux and Upper Sioux communities, based on incomplete information, before the excavation began. The decision came in part through ceremony. And it was a decision that, from the point of view of those who made it, appeared to be the only reasonable one at the point when it was made, and even later on.

Influencing the decision were several factors. The belief was that if human remains were found during the project, they would be significantly disturbed already. Also influencing the decision, as has been described in this series of reports about the Lincoln Mounds, was the success of a previous project across the road at the Ceridian company's headquarters, when other mounds in the Lincoln Mounds group were excavated and scattered remains were consolidated in a new mound area preserved on the Ceridian property.

Another factor was the belief that if remains were not removed and reburied using careful and respectful procedures, the Minnesota State Archaeologist might sanction a radical approach to authenticating the site, using mechanized equipment that might destroy, rather than salvaging much of what was there. Further, it was believed that in the long run, it would be difficult to assure the safety of remains found at the location, because of possible future development, utilities, and landscaping.

Although the decision to remove and rebury was reached at the beginning of the project, before the number of remains was known, there were later occasions when the decision was revisited. But even with additional information, those involved felt that the course determined at the beginning was the right one. The report states that the McGough company "expressed a willingness to stop at any time and find an alternative location for development" but, apparently no compelling reason was found to make this happen, despite the subsequent finding of many remains.

According to Jim Jones of the MIAC, the idea of either preserving the Lincoln Mounds site or reburying remains at the site after the completion of the project did not seem practical. It was hard to see how the developer McGough could keep the site from being destroyed during construction of the underground parking ramp and adjacent towers. The idea of reburying the remains on top of the underground ramp was not an attractive one. And even the idea of forcing the developer to find another development site does not seem to have been viewed as a sure means of preserving the site for the long term, because of the possible danger from other future development. For these reasons, despite the finding of more and more remains during the project, it was determined by tribal representatives to continue with the original plan.

One option that appears to have been rejected was the purchase and preservation of the Lincoln Mounds site. Although Minnesota law states in a provision relating to burial ground relocation that "if large Indian burial grounds are involved efforts shall be made by the state to purchase and protect them instead of removing them to another location." According to Jim Jones of MIAC this provision has only been used twice in the past. The difficulty with the provision is that there is no money attached to it. If state officials want to use the option, they still have to ask the legislature to appropriate money for the purpose, making it a time-consuming and uncertain option.

Many opponents of what happened at the Lincoln Mounds may not agree with the decision that was reached and will not be convinced by these statements. But at least now, finally, when the Lincoln Mounds report is completed and distributed more widely, they will have much better information on which to understand what was found and perhaps even accept what was done.

In fact, the authors of the Lincoln Mounds report seem conscious that those who contested what they did and the public which heard about the project will read the report. Among those acknowledged by the authors are the Mendota Dakota, the American Indian Movement, and members of the public "for the opportunity to question, reflect, and grapple with opposing perspectives."

Yet, in writing about the Lincoln Mounds, the authors made no effort to reach out to those who disagreed, to deal seriously with their contentions and their beliefs about what happened at the Lincoln Mounds. And no statements of those in opposition are included in the report. The reason may be that those involved in the project believed that they, and they alone, were chosen to bear the burden for dealing with the Lincoln Mounds, and that there was no reason to communicate with others during the project. To quote from the draft report:

From the point of view of those who opposed the Lincoln Mounds project, this statement may ring a bit hollow. If in fact the phrase "things happen for a reason," can accurately be applied to this project, then many other people might equally well claim that their role in disagreeing, arguing, and asking questions about the Lincoln Mounds project also happened for a reason, one that the authors of the report never fully acknowledge. What was it that drew Michael Scott and Jim Anderson of the Mendota Dakota to the site in late August 2004? What were the criticisms of Scott and Anderson and have the authors of this report adequately acknowledged and responded to them? The report does not answer.

Perhaps the major reason that no attempt was made to reach out to those opposed to the project was the perceived need for secrecy. There was an attempt throughout this project to keep knowledge from anyone except representatives of tribes. It was believed that the information about the Lincoln Mounds was "sensitive" because disclosure might have led to "exploitation or damage" to the people buried at the Lincoln Mounds. "Access to information regarding the recovery work, analysis and reburial was held in confidence out of respect for the people who were buried at the Lincoln Mounds site." To this is added a statement from Tom Ross:

Yet, the authors of the report reject the idea that this was in any way a cover-up: "Contrary to claims by some there was no conspiracy. There was no cover-up. There were archaeologists and American Indian people working to protect sensitive information." Only now, after the reburial, do the authors feel that they are in a position to reveal the story of what was found and what was done.

On this point, it may be held that the distinction between archaeologists and Indian people agreeing amongst themselves not to disclose anything and a cover-up is a distinction without a difference. Whatever one might choose to call it, with these statements the authors of the report have acknowledged that they did not want the public to know what was found at the Bloomington site during and after the excavation and that they made efforts to prevent that information from coming out for a year. The authors think that there were good reasons for this unwillingness to share the information. Many will agree with them.

But given the sometimes eloquent case the authors have made in this report for what happened, it is not entirely clear why the secrecy had to be maintained throughout the entire year since the excavation began in July 2004. The excavation was completed in November and construction began in February. There were many points when something could have been said to reveal some pieces of the information and provide the eloquent justifications that have only been stated in a coherent way now in the draft report. Yet fundamentally those managing the project did not trust either the opponents of the project or the public. Perhaps they believed that opponents or the public might do something to physically endanger the remains or disrupt the eventual reburial. Or perhaps there was a less tangible fear that as long as those removed from the Lincoln Mounds had not been laid to rest again, it was simply disrespectful to know and talk about the project, outside of the circle of project participants and federally recognized tribal people.

Again there are those who will find at least some of these beliefs to be both reasonable and right. They may point to the events on a day in late August 2004 when some of those who were concerned and asking questions about what was going on, occupied, briefly, the excavation at Mound 2. But, beyond this brief occurrence, the major disrespect shown by those objecting to the project was not to the people who were buried at the Lincoln Mounds, but to those who were digging them up. Even later, when all the remains had been removed, it was widely known where they were being stored, yet no attempts were made to endanger or exploit the remains—unless, of course, simply talking about the remains might be viewed as disrespectful or exploitative.

It is ironic that the secrecy maintained during the Lincoln Mounds project was designed to keep information from people who fundamentally agree with a major point made by those who carried out the project: these kinds of mound excavations simply should not occur. Fundamentally, archaeologists, Native people, preservationists, and protestors—those who were drawn to carry out the Lincoln Mounds project or to disagree with it—are united in a belief that mounds and burial sites should be protected. In effect, the whole experience has driven a wedge between many of those who might need to work together to achieve preservation of mounds and cemeteries.

This point is not addressed in the Lincoln Mounds report, but Jim Jones of the MIAC recently addressed it. He stated: "We're at a point in archaeology where if people don't work together, resources will be lost." He pointed out the need to make some changes in the state laws protecting burial sites and the need for people, including opponents of what happened at the Lincoln Mounds, to help bring about these changes. He stated that now that the people of the Lincoln Mounds had been laid to rest it was important to return to the task of preserving these kinds of sites.

Will those working together to achieve change in the law agree about the changes that need to be made? Will there be agreement about the degree of responsibility that should be accorded under law to those who make decisions about burial places? Will a push for openness not merely after the fact, but in the decision-making process itself, be acceptable to all? Perhaps now, more than at any time in the past, the process through which human remains are dealt with in Minnesota can be expected to change, maybe radically. This will be one of the legacies of those people once buried at the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington. 

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