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The Death of a Mound
Politics and Human Remains in Minnesota
-December 1, 2004-
The Remains are NOT in a Circle
Searching for Answers about the Lincoln Mounds
There is a great premium placed on modesty and decorum in Minnesota. A person who raises his or her voice will be accused of yelling and trying to get attention. But even in Minnesota there is a big difference between decorum and sweeping everything under the rug. Sometimes there are real issues that are worth serious public discussion. In cases such as the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington the desire for decorum and modesty serves only to prevent the free flow of information and to stifle dissent. The issues that have been raised about the Lincoln Mounds will not go away until state officials respond to questions and reveal what has occurred and why.
For reasons that have yet to be made entirely clear, the Lincoln Mounds site in Bloomington has become the center of both controversy and secrecy. While some have questioned the motives and actions of state officials, the state officials have defended themselves by, at turns, releasing some misleading information, by subsequently responding very slowly to requests under Minnesota Data Practices Act, and later by claiming ignorance of the actual details of what was being done in Bloomington. Most recently an official has agreed to release some information by a date in late December, three months after the original request was submitted to him.
Because of the lack of openness on the part of state officials, rumor and anonymous communications have had to substitute for the free flow of information. One source was a letter written in early September 2004. On a muggy morning around that time, Alice (not her real name) went to the office to find a letter neatly folded and taped to the door. The purpose of the letter, which was signed “a concerned citizen” was to get Alice to notify the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (MMDC) of the fact that the archaeologists excavating a mound at the site of a $700 million project in Bloomington, Minnesota were finding more human remains that had been admitted a few weeks before in a newspaper article:
The recent newspaper articles say that a single burial has been uncovered at the dig. However, this [unnamed] person told me that in fact they 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. When I heard this, I became sick to my stomach. How could they destroy these burials arranged so lovingly in such a sacred spot? The site must be preserved to honor those that died and were buried here. This is probably the most important burial site along the Minnesota River, perhaps in all of Minnesota, and [an agency] is allowing that to be destroyed. It seems that this burial site is clearly SACRED and not simply the isolated burial place that [an agency and a newspaper] would have you believe. . . . The [agency] is clearly not telling you or anyone else what they have found there because once the burials are removed from their resting place, the site can be developed. I pray that you will believe me and will demand to know the truth about the site before it is too late. . . .
The letter raises many questions, both about the motives of the letter writer and about the possibility that portions of the letter might actually be true. While part of the letter might be considered libelous (this part will not be described here), the responses of state officials to the archaeological allegations in the letter, as it turned out, were some of the first indications that there might be some truth to what was alleged about the details of the archaeological finds in Bloomington.
At the time the letter appeared on Alice’s door, things were actually quieting down among those who had protested the excavation taking place in Bloomington in August. A few days before, members of the MMDC had withdrawn from a vigil at the site in Bloomington, after a pipe ceremony and a gathering of supporters.
When Alice first read the letter taped to her door, she felt sick to her stomach, just like the author of the letter claimed to be, but for many more complicated reasons. Her first instinct was not to tell anyone about it. She did not want to show it to the MMDC because they always seemed to be the ones out on a limb when it came to sacred sites. With this indication that there really was more at the Bloomington mound site than officials were admitting, she thought that someone in the MMDC might be tempted to do something futile or counterproductive. Alice did not want the controversy to be about MMDC all the time. She wanted it instead to be about the mounds themselves, and to have other people asking questions for a change.
Alice’s first instinct was to call a few newspaper reporters she knew, in the belief that they might be interested and would want to investigate the issue. She left messages, but no one called her back. Unfortunately, press reaction had already been shaped by the events of late August and early September, when the MMDC had first gone to the site. They had gone there when they did as a result of a fluke, having been alerted to the fact of the excavation by a friend who was driving by. They went there just to check things out. When they got there a public official working for MIAC happened to be in a trench dug in the middle of Mound 2 of the Lincoln Mounds. It is claimed that he turned pale when he saw Jim Anderson and Michael Scott of the MMDC walking toward the site, having locked horns with them in previous years about other construction projects.
During the course of the conversation between the three, the public official admitted that one set of remains had just been found at the site. He is believed to have told Anderson and Scott that these remains would be removed and placed across the road in a new mound created from burials uncovered during the Ceridian Project in 1998. Speaking of the incident later, Anderson claims that the official justified this by saying: “He is lonely. He wants to be with the other people across the road." Anderson felt insulted by this statement.
MMDC chairman Michael Scott has been making the case in recent years—in relation to various Dakota burial grounds and sacred sites—that Indian burial remains should not be reburied and that even if bones are taken out of the ground, it does not change the status of the site as a cemetery that should be protected. In conversations with the official Scott and Anderson may have made this point. The official is believed to have said that it was too late to do anything to save the site of the mound and that removal and reburial was being done with respect and ceremony.
What happened after this is a matter of some dispute. A full account of what happened needs to be written by someone who was there then or in the days following. To summarize, the MMDC put up a tipi and began a vigil with members and supporters. A news conference was held in which the MMDC and others protested the excavation of remains. During the conference someone who was not a member of MMDC led a group of people into a fenced-in excavated area of the archaeological site to see what was there. Police were called. The protesters vacated the site. Bad words were exchanged. Someone later claimed that Jim Anderson shouted at a Dakota individual who happened to be working with the archaeologists, saying “How can you call yourself Dakota?” offending that individual. Later on during the vigil over a period of days, archaeologists were shouted at and were offended. Accusations of lack of respect toward people and human remains were exchanged.
A newspaper account of some of the incidents quoted an official who said that those who had protested did so to get attention. It was not clear to whom the words referred, whether to the MMDC or to the individual who led the group into the excavated site, or to the speakers at the press conference. The article also repeated the statement that one set of human remains had been found at the site. Together these statements cemented the belief among some people that the MMDC was a hot-headed group which overreacted to the archaeological dig and that state officials were handling the whole thing respectfully and that there was nothing to worry about. It is not clear whether Michael Scott and Jim Anderson agreed that there was nothing to worry about. But early on, Anderson had tried to make clear that the group had respect for what MIAC was doing. He wrote:
We realize that what the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council is doing to protect the Remains is very good because many of the remains of our ancestors have been destroyed from construction projects across the country. So we thank them for their very important work. All we are asking for is that the efforts of the MIAC go one step further. This is an area where many mounds have been removed and the Remains either destroyed, put in Museums or Repatriated. Now that they have found this Burial Mound we ask that that it be protected and undisturbed. We ask this in the name of our ancestors, in their memory.
By September 7, the group had come to believe that it had done what it could by having the vigil and calling attention to the removal of human remains from a burial mound. So the MMDC had decided to take a step back and let the public officials do their jobs. But now, a few days after that, on that muggy September day, this letter appeared on Alice’s door, saying that the public officials had misled everyone, that there were not just a few remains at the site, but dozens and that these officials were collaborating in the destruction of a major sacred site.
Later that same morning, Alice received another copy of the letter. This one was mailed from a post office somewhere in the Twin Cities. There was no return address, or identification of the writer. The only clues to the writer of the letter were the words in the letter. The writer claimed to be someone with connection to an agency or company (which will not be named here). The writer claimed to have gotten the information from an agency or company and the writer blamed what was happening on the decisions of another agency or company for reasons that cannot be mentioned here.
At first after reading the letter over several times, Alice was not convinced of (a) the truthfulness of the details in the letter or (b) that the letter writer was who he/she claimed to be. There was a possibility that the writer was someone sending misinformation to try to discredit someone else.
One possibility was that the intent was to stir up the MMDC to discredit them. The writer might have informed Alice so that she would tell the MMDC and they would go off and do something rash that would cause them problems. But what would be the point? The reputation of the MMDC was already shaky at best for some people, based on the information reported in the newspaper article. Furthermore, the MMDC had vacated the Bloomington site a few days before. What would be gained by stirring things up again?
Another possibility was that the letter writer was trying to incriminate one of the agencies or companies for some purpose. If that were the case then the information might be true or untrue, but the identification in the letters might be included only to cause trouble for the agencies or companies mentioned. The writer might be connected to one of the agencies or companies involved with the site but not mentioned in the letter. The hope of the writer might have been to get the MMDC to make an issue of the letter in hopes they would release it and cause trouble for those agencies and companies that were mentioned in the letter.
To the outsider, all of these various theories may sound overblown, but the fact is it fits in with what is known of the way the world of archaeology and cultural-resource management works in Minnesota, especially as it relates to vast multi-million-dollar projects. Such work operates in secrecy and fear. The secrecy is a symptom of the corporatization of the field. Most archaeology these days is not done in an academic context but by archaeologists working for cultural-resource firms hired by developers to work on development projects or for government agencies involved projects affecting archaeological sites. Typically the employers of these archaeologists—whether private or public—ask for confidentiality at least for the duration of projects.
Archaeologists in Minnesota also operate in a climate of fear. For most of them there is no such thing as academic freedom. It is difficult for them to be completely free in their opinions and in their work because they are dependent on developers and agencies to get work. Some archaeologists are unhappy with this state of affairs and vow that some day they will change things for the better. But others fully internalize the needs of their employers and clients. An archaeologist once reported a conversation with another archaeologist working on a massive public project, in which the other archaeologist said after finding burial places: “This project is not going to be stopped by a bag of bones.” If this is only folklore it at least speaks to common concerns among archaeologists in Minnesota.
Even completed projects can be subject to confidentiality for long periods after completion, with archaeologists fearful of releasing information or discussing what has occurred. This reluctance to release information raises real questions about the purposes of such work, which is frequently done to fulfill state and federal requirements. If it does not add to the knowledge of the public why should it receive public sanction?
As an example, a federal agency operating in Minnesota refused for three years to release historical and archaeological studies containing data about a well known historic site under federal ownership, on the basis that it had not yet decided what to do with the site and that therefore it would be premature to let the public know what the agency already knew about this place. Information is power and the federal agency wished to restrict the number of people who might want to affect the outcome of the federal decision-making process by expressing opinions about what should happen to the site or possibly about the quality of the archaeology and history on which the agency might base its decision. Apparently the agency wanted the decision to be a purely bureaucratic one, without the “taint” of public input.
It should also be pointed out that even if the staff of agencies or companies wish to be forthcoming with information, they are often hampered by the more politically and economically motivated agency/company heads for which they work. These kinds of situations put staff of agencies or companies in hard places stuck between the demands of public, of preservationists, of agencies, of developers, and sometimes of their own beliefs. It is an unenviable situation.
One official at an agency involved in a situations similar to that of the Lincoln Mounds feels quite alone in being involved in such undertakings. He has been involved with such issues for many years and has never had much public support in the continuing battles over these places. He feels put upon and disrespected by groups such as the MMDC or others involved in such situations. He resents being told what he should or should not do because he believes that he is always trying to do his best.
People working for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council may be among those who have this feeling of being out in the cold. While these feelings are understandable, a great deal of the lack of public involvement in burial issues can be attributed to the culture of this agency, which closely guards its prerogatives. A member of the public reports that a few years ago he or someone else called the agency to ask about what had happened at a important historical burial site at which remains had been excavated and later reburied. He spoke to an official who asked him who he was and why he wanted to know. He explained that he was a historically-minded member of the public who valued these pieces of Native American heritage and was concerned about the treatment of the remains and interested in the historical event from which this burial resulted. The response from the official was to say that this member of the public should not worry, that agency had taken care of things. The conversation ended there.
From the point of view of the agency the attitude expressed here appears to be based on the belief that the MIAC has the ultimate and solemn responsibility to protect and rebury Indian remains under state law. The agency believes that it carries out its duties respectful of the remains. The agency also believes that if members of the public wish to show that they are respectful of the remains they will be respectful of the agency which has the duty to deal with these remains. Being respectful apparently means not asking questions or questioning decisions.
This was the gist of what one of the agency officials said when asked, a few days after Alice found the letter taped to her door, about the assertions in the letter. The conversation happened after a three-day period, in which Alice and a few of her friends made efforts to find out the truthfulness of the main details in the letter. All that could be gleaned were rumors. Some of them matched the information in the letter about human remains buried in a circle. Other rumors agreed that the remains of children had been found. Others stated that the archaeological survey was expected to continue for some time, involving the hiring of new workers, lending credence to the possibility that the site might be more important than admitted at first. One individual pointed out that MIAC was responsible for dealing with human remains and that MIAC officials had been at the site a lot, suggesting that many human remains could have been found.
Finally on the third day, a MIAC official returned a phone call and responded to some questions about the burial site. The official was obviously under great stress. The official agreed to discuss the situation in general terms, but emphasized that the mandate of the agency was not to the public. It was to Indian tribal governments. These tribal governments were to be given the full facts, but no one else.
The agency official was asked about the statement in the letter about the arrangement of human remains in a circle, with the remains of children in the center. He said: “It wasn’t a circle.” He was asked if there were, as reported in a local newspaper, 200 bones found at the site, he did not say yes or no, but wondered where people would have gotten such an idea. When asked whether there were more or fewer than 200 bones he said he could not comment. The conversation went on like that for some time, with little resolution of the questions raised.
These evasive answers more than any other fact seemed to give credence to the anonymous letter put on Alice’s door. It would have been easy for the agency official to deny any truthfulness to the letter. But he did not do that. Instead he responded with evasive comments. In the days of Watergate, this was what would have been called a “non-denial denial.”
The agency official was asked why there seemed to be such a climate of secrecy involving the site in Bloomington. If the decision could be defended, why was it not being defended? His response was to point to the MMDC and to their vigil. He claimed that giving out the facts could inflame the situation. At the same time he stated that whatever remains were found were clearly disturbed, implying that this was one reason the site could not be preserved. And there was no need or point in justifying what was being done to anyone but the representatives of federally recognized tribes.
In the weeks after the arrival of the letter Alice and others involved have sought to get the answers to the questions raised by the letter and by the evasive statements of the official from MIAC. They made phone calls, wrote letters, and did research about the Bloomington site. Alice did tell members of the MMDC about the anonymous letter. After this, on several occasions Jim Anderson and Michael Scott revisited the site of the excavation in Bloomington. The archaeologists and security guards there asked them to leave. On one occasion Jim Anderson said something loud that apparently offended one of the archaeologists. One person claimed that some of the archaeologists were beginning to have some sympathy for the MMDC but that this incident supposedly changed their minds. Another person claimed that some Dakota people had been having some sympathy for the MMDC but that some of the things in Bloomington had changed their minds. It is not believed that these archaeologists or Dakota people had ever contacted MMDC to inform them of their increasing sympathy for them, prior to these incidents.
On September 13 Jim Anderson appeared before the Bloomington City Council to express concerns about the way Indian remains were being handled at the Lincoln Mounds site. He requested that remains found on the site be preserved in place. In response the mayor of Bloomington wrote Anderson a letter in which he insisted that the city was following state law and could do no more. The authority for what was occurring was that of the Office of State Archaeologist (OSA) and MIAC and Bloomington could do nothing about it. He suggested that if Anderson disagreed with that he should contact legislators about changing state law. Anderson and Michael Scott have been doing that.
In early October, after hearing more rumors of what was going on in Bloomington, an individual called several people involved, to suggest, in a respectful way, that if agencies or individuals made public statements that turned out not to be true, that they would lose credibility in the future. Openness was the best policy. The individual also asked who was the spokesperson for what was happening, besides the official at MIAC who had been approached earlier. The individual was told that the official at MIAC was the only spokesperson who was able to speak about what was happening in Bloomington. The individual called MIAC and left a message. Later on the MIAC official called the individual back.
The MIAC official asked why the individual was calling all these people. If anyone had any questions he should call the official himself and not these other people. The individual read parts of the anonymous letter to the MIAC official and asked him if the statement about the remains found in a circle was true. The MIAC official repeated what he had said before: “It wasn’t a circle.” The MIAC official would not give any more details but repeated that if anyone had questions they should not be calling other people but should be calling him, the MIAC official. The individual responded heatedly that he was not calling up these people to harass them but to find out whether anyone besides the spokesperson was entitled to talk about what was going on in Bloomington. The MIAC official hung up.
The individual called the MIAC official repeatedly to leave messages, but was never called back. On one of these occasions another MIAC official answered the phone. He was asked about what was going on in Bloomington. He said that that little was known because MIAC had yet to receive a report from the archaeologists working at the Lincoln Mounds. This MIAC official was asked if he would give comment or respond in any way to either the information in the anonymous letter or any other written accounts of what was going on in Bloomington. The MIAC official said that he would need to know who wrote these accounts and why they wrote them before he would respond to them.
In mid-October another article was published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The author had been told about the anonymous letter. In the article an official with MIAC was quoted as admitting now that more than a few remains were found at the Lincoln Mounds site, but that the remains were not buried in a circle. Around this same time, some Minnesota legislators spoke with the same official. He provided very little information, but according to other individuals who were present at some of these meetings, he suggested that twenty sets of human remains may have been found at the site.
Meanwhile others were being told that the site of Lincoln Mound 2 contained 20-25 burials in a pristine state, but that the burials were being removed to another location. One knowledgeable person was puzzled by that, stating that “the law is there to protect burial sites.” This person wrote:
Although MIAC has the right (in the case of Indian burials) to allow them to be removed, MIAC has rarely allowed this. Prior to the recent Bloomington incident . . . I thought MIAC strictly opposed burial ground disturbance. I am somewhat puzzled that MIAC allowed the excavation of over 25 intact burials documented to be at a known mound location. I'm sure they would not have allowed it if the project was a landowner wanting to build a garage, yet they allowed it for a multi-million dollar private development. What is the difference (except money talks)?
To gather more information about what was actually going on and how decisions were reached in the matter, MMDC sent out a number of letters to various agencies asking for information under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, the Minnesota equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, which requires that agencies and companies performing state functions make most of the information they have public. A few agencies responded promptly and provided information they had in their files, information that was helpful in establishing the context of what was happening. Among other things these requests produced a July 14, 2004, work plan for the Bloomington project. This document, made clear that the work being undertaken at the Bloomington site was under the MIAC following its responsibility under state law. The State Archaeologist was involved in the initial authentication phase of the work, but the removal of remains was taking place under the authority of MIAC and with its supervision.
It might be expected that MIAC would have compiled a considerable record of the decision-making process that had led to what was happening in Bloomington. But this was not what was indicated in a response received by MMDC from MIAC on October 22, a letter sent after two requests and a five-week wait. An agency official wrote: “Regarding data obtained from [private firm carrying out the work in Bloomington] the MIAC has received minimal data from the organization since the project is still underway and its final report has not yet been completed.” Based on what was known about the responsibility of MIAC for the decision-making and the archaeological work, this supposed lack of data was surprising.
In response to this letter, Michael Scott of the MMDC wrote to renew his request for any data relating to the Lincoln Mounds 1, 2, and 3, however minimal. To this MIAC responded after another three weeks, stating that copies of documents on this topic would be forthcoming by December 22, 2004, almost four months after the Mendota Dakota appeared at the site in Bloomington and over three months since the note appeared on Alice’s door.
When or if that happens, Alice and the rest of us may get to know some of what has happened in Bloomington. But, there will not be much left of Lincoln Mounds and it will likely be too late for anybody to seek a different outcome than the one MIAC set out to achieve in July, the removal and reburial of the remains from the site. It brings to mind the last sentence of the letter placed on Alice’s door: “If you wait for the truth until they are done digging, then it will be too late for those dozens of people that are buried there.”