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-October 18, 2004-
The Death of a Mound
Politics and Human Remains in Minnesota
“More remains found at Indian site–One group wants to protect location”
An article under this headline appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on October 13, 2004. It described a controversy involving an archaeological dig currently taking place in Bloomington, Minnesota, in a historic area within a few blocks of the Mall of America. Like many accounts of events in the land of “Minnesota nice,” it gave only the bare facts of a controversy taking place largely behind closed doors, far from public scrutiny. The details of what happened provide important insights into the way in which Minnesota protects its mounds, cemeteries, and burial places, including the problems inherent in that system.
Sorting out what is going on in Bloomington is difficult because the responsible state officials are unresponsive to questions. The Pioneer Press article refers to the finding of a few, possibly more than a few, human remains on the site of a mound. This is a far cry from the details in a letter from an anonymous person currently circulating in the Twin Cities. The letter contains observations that give the impression of more than a passing knowledge of the Bloomington site. And it states that the archaeologists have uncovered “several dozen burials. Most of the burials are arranged in a circle with a number of child burials in the center of the circle.”
If this account is true, the possibility is raised that the burial is a mass grave, the result of some catastrophic event or epidemic. The burials could be a thousand years old or a mere 140. An intriguing connection can be made with the history of the Dakota-U.S. Conflict, a traumatic time for the Dakota people. In the winter of 1862-63, more than 1600 innocent Dakota people were held in an internment camp below Fort Snelling. In the spring of 1863 the camp was moved southwest toward the Bloomington site, prior to the mass removal of these people to Nebraska and South Dakota. Since over 130 Dakota died in those camps, including many children, there is certainly the possibility that this burial could be connected to the camp.
So far those responsible for overseeing the dig have refused to quantify the number of remains or bones found and have refused to provide details as to arrangement or context. When asked directly whether dozens of remains had been found arranged in a circle with the remains of children in the center, one official’s reply was: “It wasn’t a circle.” When asked about another estimate that there were 200 separate bones found on the site, the same official first said this was wrong, but refused to comment when asked whether there were more or fewer than 200.
The last public report of the Bloomington controversy was at the end of August and in early September when a group including some members and supporters of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (MMDC), a non-federally recognized Native group, vocally expressed their opposition. The Mendota group is based a short distance away, across the Minnesota River in Mendota and across the river from Historic Fort Snelling. This area is part of Mdote Minisota, the point where the Minnesota joins the Mississippi, traditionally considered by the Dakota people to be the center of the world. This area is also associated with the earliest settlement of Euro-Americans in Minnesota.
The presence of the Twin Cities Airport and the Mall of America above the mouth of the Minnesota River is emblematic of the intense degree of pressure for development in this area. Among the most persistent in resisting this pressure are the Mendota Dakota. In the late 1990s they fought the expansion of a highway through the site of a historic spring, oak grove, and village site near Fort Snelling. In recent years the group has fought to prevent a housing development on Oheyawahi or Pilot Knob across from Fort Snelling, a location determined in January 2004 to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property. In many ways the Mendota group has been more aggressive in seeking protection for these sacred places than have the federally recognized Indian tribes.
The Bloomington excavation is taking place on a portion of a site where a $700 million project is slated to start next year. The developer has said that he does not have to build on the site of the excavation, which is less than one acre out of 47, but that he would like to build there. In other words, the developer admits that an alternative is available that would not affect the remains.
The excavations are taking place under the control of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), a state agency that includes representation from Minnesota’s federally recognized Indian tribes but does not represent all Indian people in the state. Minnesota’s human burial law has strict protections for burials in and out of designated cemeteries, and provides for the involvement of the MIAC in the decision-making process under this law. The city of Bloomington also has strict protections for historic and prehistoric burial places, but generally defers to the MIAC in making judgments about how best to deal with them.
The current controversy mainly concerns Mound 2 of the Lincoln Mounds, a group first mapped in the late 19th century. Survey and protection of one other mound in this group occurred during a construction project in the late 1990s. At that time a memorandum of agreement was reached with the landowner of that site for archaeologists to create a new mound, to be called the Bluff Ridge Mound, into which remains found at other nearby sites in Bloomington could be placed if necessary. At that time the existence of remains in other mounds in the Lincoln Mound group was unknown but may have been anticipated.
When construction for the site involving Mound 2 was first proposed, according to the Minnesota State Archaeologist, whose job it is to authenticate burial sites, it was determined that this construction site included three possible mounds remaining from the previously-mapped Lincoln Mounds group. The State Archaeologist states that he predicted that two of the mounds had probably already been destroyed. But Mound 2, he says he informed the project designers and the archaeologists working with them, would likely contain human remains and would be comparatively undisturbed. It was located in what had been the front yard of a farm homestead. It had never been plowed and so would not show the disturbance evident in nearby farm fields. He pinpointed the location of Mound 2, just to the east of a parking lot in a wooded, undeveloped area. This was exactly where Mound 2 was subsequently located.
It needs to be understood that the State Archaeologist is known to have a testy relationship with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and is often criticized by Indian people for his occasional skepticism about burial claims and the fact that he sometimes encourages the use of mechanized equipment at suspected burial places. However in this case he states that he suggested to those proposing the construction project that an alteration in the project be done to avoid Mound 2. He was informed that this could not be done because the site was slated for a massive underground parking garage.
Instead a decision appears to have been reached by the MIAC, prior to the actual survey and excavation, that any remains found on this site would be removed and reburied in the new Bluff Ridge Mound across the road. The decision was surprising because the MIAC has often been quick to fight to preserve burial sites that contained only a single set of remains. In this case there was the potential for many more remains and the Council appeared not even to consider alternatives that would protect the site.
There were, in fact, alternatives. The developer could have been encouraged to make alterations in his project. State law also contains a little used provision stating that while Indian burial grounds may be relocated with the approval of the Council, “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.” In the case of the Bloomington site it appears that this alternative was not entertained by the MIAC.
Excavation of the Mound 2 site began in mid-July 2004 and the first human remains were found on the morning of July 23. It appears that excavation and removal of human remains from Mound 2 have continued steadily since then under the supervision of the MIAC. Many questions have been raised, but not in public, about why the decision was reached to remove the remains rather than push for another outcome. Some point to the fact that the staff of the Indian Affairs Council is all Ojibwe, members of the other major Native group in Minnesota, a people whose historic homeland is to the north. But at least some Dakota spiritual leaders and some of the federally recognized Dakota communities were consulted in the decision-making process and appear to have given their approval. Assuming that these individuals and groups had all the facts, why would they do that?
One answer is that in the current political climate in Minnesota the gambling monopoly of the federally recognized Indian groups is under assault by non-Indians seeking state-run casinos. Support for the protection of a sacred site that might hinder a $700 million development near the Mall of America, one of the very places where some politicians want to place the state-run casino, could cause big political problems for the two Dakota communities that have the casinos closest to the southern Twin Cities.
The Mendota Dakota, on the other hand, don’t have the problem of the federally recognized groups. They don’t have gambling and they have nothing to lose by fighting for sacred places. But they also have difficulty in getting answers from agencies. Aside from the same right to file lawsuits as any other citizens have, their major power comes from the power of their prayers and ceremonies and their ability to bring to public attention what is happening. That is why members of the group went to the site in the first place and set up a tipi across the road for several weeks.
The group was criticized for appearing at the archaeological site and for those occasions when members and supporters shouted comments or questions for archaeologists or officials across the fence erected around the site of Mound 2. Their concern was that something was happening that should not be happening. Michael Scott, the chairman of the Mendota Dakota, has argued that removal of bones from a burial place does not change the sacred nature of the place. When bodies are interred without coffins, the flesh and hair and fingernails become part of the soil. “My ancestors are part of the dirt. You cannot remove them,” Scott says.
But the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council insists that it is being respectful. It has removed remains many times before, officials say. It claims to conduct the proper ceremonies and to do everything right. There is evidence that the archaeologists may actually be removing soil as well as bones for reburial. Supporters of the Council point to the creation of the depository mound across the road as an example of a respectful treatment of remains. The work there was done in consultation with spiritual leaders and involved reburial of soil as well as bones.
What is not clear in the current controversy are the opinions of the archaeologists doing the work. As usual, archaeologists are the pawns in the game, caught in the middle of the controversy but having little power over outcomes. They generally do what their employers tell them to do. But this does not mean they are happy. Clearly they cannot have been happy to be on the front line shouted at and questioned by protesters while being told to keep quiet and say nothing by their employers.
There is a possibility that the author of the anonymous letter quoted earlier may be an archaeologist who worked at the site or who had contact with one who did. The letter contains an interesting evaluation: “This is probably the most important burial site along the Minnesota River, perhaps in all of Minnesota.”
Depending on the actual details of the site, this is either an accurate estimation by an archaeologist, or an extravagant one made by an amateur with no real knowledge of archaeology. One might conclude that an amateur wrote it, except for another statement on the record, by the archaeologist who in the 1990s worked on the other of the Lincoln Mounds. In his report he stated: “The Lincoln Mound Site is a place of incredible cultural value. It has been a cemetery and sacred place for 1,500 years or more.”
Does Mound 2 of the Lincoln Mounds meet or exceed this description? We will only know when the full details of the excavation are revealed. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that will happen. Since the work is being done by a private firm working for a private developer, there may be efforts to keep the details private even when the firms report to the city of Bloomington as part of the city’s permitting process. Additionally it is said that out of respect, the MIAC has decreed that no photographs be taken during the dig. Drawings made of what is found will be destroyed prior to the reburial of the remains. In any case, if this mound is as important as rumored, there may be a strong motive for all involved to keep quiet and never reveal the full details of what has been found or what has happened.
But lawsuits and other actions are still possible and it may yet be that the Indian Affairs Council will be forced to consider other alternatives for this site, such as state purchase of the Mound 2 site or a change in the development proposal to save the mound. At the very least there may be a push to rebury soil and remains on the site. These alternatives are hampered without public pressure which is less likely without full public knowledge. This is why the Mendota Dakota and others have sought answers to questions about Mound 2. So far the MIAC has refused to answer most questions and has not responded to requests under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, the state equivalent to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Public pressure is needed to encourage the council to answer questions and consider other alternatives.
One positive result of this whole situation is that it reveals the problems and contradictions in a system originally designed to provide the maximum possible protection for human burials, but which does not always do so. The events at Mound 2 show that such a system, carried out without public scrutiny or input, may be as subject as any other system to political pressures. A recognition of this fact may lead to a re-examination of the process and a push for a new more open system in which decisions are reached through public deliberation in which all voices can be heard.