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-November 10, 2004-

 

Protecting Large Indian Cemeteries:

A View from the Minnesota River Valley

 

Larry Granger

 

In the current controversy about the threat to burial mounds in Bloomington, Minnesota, one thing is clear: The situation is aggravated by the murkiness of current law relating to burial sites. More clarity and transparency in relevant laws is needed, not only for the sake of local governments, developers, and members of the public, but also for those who lie at rest in these cemeteries.

Bloomington Minnesota is a bluff-top community bordering the Minnesota River as well as a modern day “Edge City”—in the words of urban planners—with major developments and ongoing redevelopment along freeways 494 and 35W. It is the home of the Mall of America and soon-to-be major development in the adjacent Airport South development district. A high level of integrated office,  retail,  and housing construction has the potential over the next twenty years to create a “third downtown” of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. As this development proceeds eastward in the land between 494 and the river bluffs, burial mounds from the Woodland and Dakota cultures which have been documented for over one hundred years have will be encountered during construction. This is the case with Lincoln Mound 2 near the junction of 34th Ave. and Old Shakopee Road.

The City of Bloomington has long been respectful of such burials, many of which have been protected on residential and public lands. In the past a City Historic and Natural Resources Commission and previously a City Heritage Preservation Commission would review all requests for archeological excavations. Neither commission currently exists and approval of excavation permits has become solely the duty of City administration.

Mound protection has many challenges in the area east of the Mall of America because the land south of the Twin Cities International Airport, between Highway 494 and the Minnesota River, narrows as it appropaches the freeway interchange near Fort Snelling State Park. All available property is therefore deemed critical for development, and encounters with bluff-top burial mounds have been inevitable.

For the past several years the City of Bloomington has worked closely with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in following state law (MS 307.08) in the treatment of burial remains discovered during excavation for building projects. This relationship appears to have followed the “letter of the law” with one possible exception which has caused controversy during the excavation of the Lincoln Mound 2 on 34th Ave.

Section 8 of MS 307.08 provides for acquisition and protection of large Indian cemeteries. However, the statute is silent on who determines what constitutes a large Indian cemetery and what unit of state government is to acquire and protect such cemeteries. The impact of this statutory silence is that whenever multiple burial mounds are discovered, uncertainty about the appropriate manner of treating such burials can occur and a subsequent reluctance by the Indian Affairs Council and others to provide much information about the nature of the discovery. For those who care about the issue of Indian cemeteries being protected, straightforward information is hard to obtain, so rumors float, conspiracy theories arise, and relationships among various Native Americans become strained. This situation can be seen as disrespectful to those whose remains are found, much as when relatives of a deceased person bicker over the provisions of a will.

The intent of the 1979 Minnesota Legislature in passing MS 307.08 is hard to fully evaluate at this time without a full investigation of the original bill’s progress through the legislative process. The bill did provide a much needed process in dealing with discovery of human remains on a small or large scale. The legislation drafter and legislative advocate for the bill Alan Woolworth of the Minnesota Historical Society when asked on October 11, 2004 about he would consider a “large Indian cemetery” under subdivision 8 of MS 307.08 commented that he would consider it to be “a number over six or maybe ten burials.” A full investigation of the 1979 passage of this act, possibly utilizing the resources of the Legislative Reference Library and interviews with former legislators may or may not shed additional light on legislative intent for this section.

Insofar as information is available, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council has not addressed this issue in a formal policy but rather dealt with it on a case-by-case basis. A 2001 Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s Report called for a re-examination of the workings of MS 307.08 but nothing has apparently happened on that recommendation to date.

The fact that state officials have failed to address these issues may cause further problems in the near future. Expansion of the Twin City Metropolitan Area southward up the Minnesota River Valley in the development of bluff-top communities and subdivisions in Scott, Sibley, LeSueur, Nicollet, Brown, and Blue Earth counties will likely encounter other Native American burials. Of course this is not the first time one culture has located in the former home of a previous culture in the Minnesota River Valley. Over 12,000 years the Paleoindian culture was succeeded by at least two or three other cultures before the Dakota Indians in the middle of the 1600s replaced the Oneota and Iowa tribes. But we have no record from recorded history of how succeeding cultures viewed the burial sites of previous peoples.

This land-use planning issue has clear legal and spiritual implications. In August 2004, Michael Scott, chair of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community and the community's Cultural Affairs Chairperson presented the issue to students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in hopes that a team of students would undertake a review of this issue as part of their capstone project for completion of their Master's degree in Public Affairs. No student volunteers came forward at this time but the issue will be presented again to students in spring semester of 2005.

The lack of information available from the state Minnesota Indian Affairs Council about the excavation details and future of Lincoln Mound 2 led James Anderson of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community to address the Bloomington City Council on September 13 to request that they respond to the question of protecting a large Indian Cemetery that was apparently being uncovered in Lincoln Mound 2, whether the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council chose to do so or not. No action was taken on this request.

A local organization with an interest in preserving burial mounds, the Bloomington Historical Society (a forty-year-old 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization) became aware of these issues during the summer of 2004, because of a peaceful protest and encampment along Old Shakopee Road near the burial excavation site organized by the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community and social-justice advocates from the Twin City area. The Society recognized that the issues involved in burial excavation conflicts needed to be resolved on a statewide basis, and passed a resolution at its October 12, 2004, Board of Directors meeting calling for its legislative delegation to join with other legislators in examining this issue during the upcoming 2005-06 Legislative sessions. Such a review may confirm or modify the process called for in MS 307.08—legislation which has not been reviewed for a twenty-five years—but in any case, it is hoped that it will bring some open civil discussion to this issue.

Larry Granger is Executive Director of the Joseph R. Brown Minnesota River Center in Henderson, Minnesota, which interprets the environmental and cultural stories of the Minnesota River Valley, and is a former president of the Bloomington Historical Society.

 

A Resolution in Favor of a Legislative Re-examination of the Private Cemeteries Act of Minnesota (MS 307.08) as it affects Native Americans

WHEREAS the growth and expansion of the Twin City Metropolitan Area and numerous Regional centers in the state brings development projects into conflict with the preservation of the burial remains of Native American people, and

WHEREAS current state law MS 307.08 provides for a process under which small numbers of unearthed remains can be relocated with permission of the State Archeologist, Indian Affairs Council and representatives of a federally recognized American Indian tribes, and

WHEREAS section 8 of MS 307.08 provides for state protection of large Indian ceremonies without providing a definition of large cemetery, and

WHEREAS archeology studies of the 19th Century provided historic documentation of many burial mound locations which are not protected during development, and

WHEREAS the spiritual leaders of American Indian tribes in Minnesota are not included in the decision making regarding the unearthing of Native America remains.

NOW THEREFORE in order to resolve these conflicts relative to the Cemeteries Act of Minnesota (M307.08), be it resolved by the Board of Directors of the Bloomington Historical Society, that state legislative Senators and Representatives elected to represent Bloomington be requested to cooperate with legislative colleagues in conducting hearings during the 2005 Legislative Session on MS 307.08 for purposes of clarifying and improving this act. This re-examination should consider providing a definition of large Indian cemeteries in section 8, providing protection for historically documented Indian burial mounds and expanding or reorganizing the current process for determining the disposition of Native American burial remains by inclusion of spiritual leaders of Minnesota Indian tribes in this process.

ADOPTED the 12th day of October, 2004 by an affirmative vote of the Board of Directors of the Bloomington Historical Society.

Vonda Kelly, Executive Director & President,  Bloomington Historical Society

Distributed to Representatives Lenczewski, Larson, and Senators Ranum, Michel, and Belanger.

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