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  -December 13, 2004-

Not Just Piles of Dirt

Three Archaeologists Write About Burial Mounds


The archaeologist David Mather concluded a recent article about an intriguing burial mound in western Minnesota, with these telling words: �Not all development is bad, of course, and we can�t stop the future any more than we can change history. But as an elder once told me, �These things can co-exist. The modern world is a more meaningful place when it�s rooted in that which has come before.�

Although Mather did not discuss it in his article, these words have a resonance in the case of the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington, an endangered site, soon to be part of a $700 million development. Mather�s words suggest a motive for fighting mound destruction and seeking understanding and knowledge about these important landscape features. As Mather wrote:  �Ancient earthworks are not just piles of dirt any more than a cathedral is just a building. The mounds were constructed in a deliberate and symbolic way, as resting places for deceased loved ones, and also much more.� All the more reason to learn about mounds and seek to do one�s part to keep them from being destroyed, even when they are located in the heart of intensive development.

One of the most intriguing questions that can be raised about Minnesota�s mounds is the question of who built them. It was once believed that only so-called advanced or complex societies�those perceived as resembling European societies�were capable of building mounds. It was believed that no Indian societies present in America in the 19th century were capable of building mounds. It was imagined that mound-building peoples had been present but later vanished after building the mounds.

More recently, in part because of growing respect for the complexity and sophistication of all Indian cultures,  it has come to be accepted that many of the mounds in Minnesota were likely built by the ancestors of present-day Dakota people. Work by present-day archaeologists Scott L. Anfinson, Alan Woolworth, and David Mather, excerpted in part here, provides useful information and intriguing speculation on the connection between these mounds and the Dakota people. These comments are included here in the spirit of what David Mather has described as a goal for the field of archaeology: �This is a field that advances through debate, independent evaluation of evidence, and revision of interpretations based on new findings.� This can happen only with a free flow of information.

Further comments on the issues presented here are welcome. Write to [email protected]


Scott F. Anfinson in an extensive study published in the Minnesota Archaeologist in 1984, �Cultural and Natural Aspects of Mound Distribution� wrote about the correlation of the distribution of mounds in Minnesota and the early locations of Dakota peoples. Included are a few excerpts from the article. (Citations have been removed from these quotations.)

Perhaps the strongest cultural correlation with mound distribution in Minnesota is with the early historic distribution of the Dakota. In A.D. 1700, the Dakota and their close relatives the Assiniboin controlled all of Minnesota except the northeast and perhaps the extreme south. While the Teton may have been almost exclusively a Plains tribe by A.D. 1700, the Yankton, Yanktonai, and Assiniboin appear to have had a yearly cycle that included occupation of the woodlands and the prairie. the eastern Dakota groups or Santee, made up of the Mdewakanton, Wahpeton, Wahpekute, and Sisseton, were largely woodland dwellers at the time of contact, although they no doubt made bison hunting forays into the prairie areas of western Minnesota.

Over the next 150 years, the Santee gradually abandoned their homeland in east-central Minnesota due to multiple factors including pressure from the intruding Ojibwa, the presence of early traders in southern Minnesota, the depletion of fur-bearing animals in the north, and the lure of bison hunting on the plains. By 1835 the Santee were restricted to southern Minnesota, and the western Dakota groups had largely left Minnesota except for some Yanktonai in the Red River Valley and some Yankton in the southwest. Permanent Dakota or Ojibwa villages were scarce in the deciduous woodlands of central Minnesota due to the inter-tribal warfare. The major late historic Dakota villages were along the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota, along the Minnesota River, particularly the lower third, and at Big Stone and Traverse lakes in western Minnesota. the Dakota villages on the lower Minnesota and Mississippi rivers were adjacent to some of the densest mound concentrations in Minnesota. . . .

The association of mounds with Dakota distribution need not mean the Dakota were mound builders in Minnesota. The mound-building people could have simply desired the same resources as the Dakota, living in the same general locations. [But] we know the Dakota were mound builders based on ethnographic and archaeological data. The location of the major mound concentrations suggests an association between these mounds and the Dakota. [Even when the Dakota stopped building mounds] a preferred burial location may have been an existing mound. At least 23 excavated mounds in Minnesota have intrusive historic Dakota burials.

If the Dakota were indeed the most prolific mound builders of Minnesota, then we must reexamine traditional archaeological and ethnographic concepts regarding early Dakota distribution in Minnesota. A popular misconception is that the Dakota were all woodland dwellers at the time of white contact and that soon after contact they were forced out of their central Minnesota homes by the better-armed Ojibwa. This conception is now being challenged by historians and archaeologists alike who contend that the western Dakota or Santee were at least seasonally on the prairies of Minnesota. It is also possible that many Santee groups occupied areas farther south earlier than generally believed and that perhaps only the Mdewakanton and some of the Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Wahpekute were truly forced out of their homes by the Ojibwa, although other Dakota groups may have had their seasonal movements into the woodlands restricted by the Ojibwa intrusion. . . .


In an unpublished work written in June 2001, archaeologist and ethnohistorian Alan R. Woolworth dealt with the question: �Who Built the Prehistoric Burial Mounds in Minnesota and the Dakotas.� In this report Woolworth places mound construction in the context of the prehistoric movements of people that brought the Siouan-speaking Dakota into the Minnesota region.

Available information demonstrates that the burial mounds in most of southern Minnesota were created by Siouan speaking Indians who had originated in the Ohio River Valley and eventually migrated into this region. A basic premise is that Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas had been inhabited by proto-Algonkin Indians from remote times up to about 800 A.D. Perhaps the Moingoana or Des Moines River system served as a seasonal hunting and migration route for many of these Indian people.

The ancestral homes of many Siouan-speaking Indians such as the Teton, Yankton, Yanktonai, Assiniboine and Santee Dakota peoples were in the Ohio River country. Also, in this general area were the Dhegiha and Chiwere Siouan speakers. Perhaps all of these groups migrated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the general vicinity of Cahokia and then traveled northward into the Minnesota region.

Generally, these people migrated along river valleys and would often stop in a choice location for years before moving on. Further, they appear to have communicated across long distances to keep contacts with kindred groups in the Ohio country.

Around 700-800 A.D., A large scale Teton Lakota migration into Wisconsin and Minnesota drove a large wedge of Siouan speakers between the Algonkins in Wisconsin and well into Minnesota. The Teton moved up to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and built many large, round topped burial mounds. They were still a woodland dwelling people, but gradually began to move onto the Coteau des Prairies with its deciduous timber and lakes and used it as a wintering ground and staging area for venturing into the valley of the Red River of the North where there were large herds of bison. They also moved to southwestern Minnesota and into the valleys of the Big Sioux and James rivers.

The Cree were displaced northward to the U.S. Canadian boundary. The Cheyenne were displaced westward and north into northern Dakota Territory. The Central Algonkin tribes such as the Menominee and Sauk and Fox were displaced southward in Wisconsin. This gap may have facilitated the movement of the Chiwere Siouans into the region.

Chiwere Siouans composed of the Winnebago, Iowa, Oto and Missour groups, had likewise migrated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Cahokia area and about 1,000 to 1,200 A.D. migrated up the Mississippi River to the large fortified Aztalan site in south central Wisconsin and later moved westward into the Minnesota area. It was necessary to fortify Aztalan against Algonkin attacks. Some of the earlier Chiwere Siouans settled around the Gottschall Rock Shelter in southwestern Wisconsin about 1,000 A.D. There is much evidence to show that the Winnebago or Ho-Chunk people built the effigy mounds in Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota.

The Yankton, Yanktonai and Assiniboine followed on the heels of the Teton Lakota into Wisconsin and Minnesota. This movement appears to have been about 1250-1300 A.D. and was related to the Alti-thermal climatic shift. They followed the Teton Lakota up the Mississippi River to its headwaters and then went westward to the Coteau des Prairies which also served as their staging area for moving to the Sheyenne River and onto the Great Plains.

The Santee or Eastern Dakota people were the last of the Siouan speaking peoples to leave the Ohio River Valley and moved westward into the Minnesota region to arrive at the Minnesota River about 1500 AD. Here they found and displaced the Chiwere Siouan Iowa people and the Cheyenne with both of them moving southwest of the St. Peters or Minnesota River. The Santee Dakota in turn, moved up the Mississippi River towards its headwaters and in the late 17th century went downstream to the St. Peters River and later settled along its lower course and south on the Mississippi River to the Iowa border.

There is a considerable body of evidence to show that the Teton Lakota, Yankton, Yanktonai Nakota, and Santee Dakota all lived on the headwaters of the Mississippi River and around Mille Lacs Lake for considerable periods of time. They erected the many large round prehistoric burial mounds of the region.

The Dhegiha Siouans composed of the Quapaw, Osage, Kansa, Omaha and Ponca groups, appear to have left the Ohio River Valley at a relatively early date and moved down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the vicinity of St. Louis and Cahokia, Illinois. There is a reasonable amount of data to show that they erected the Cahokia mounds. About 1400 AD., these people began to move up the Missouri River with the Quapaw or Arkansea settling first, and then the Big and Little Osage groups along the Osage River. The Kansa settled along the Kansas River. Last to arrive upstream were the Omaha and Ponca who first settled near the Pipestone Quarries around 1670 AD. and then moved to the vicinity of Lake Andes, South Dakota. They had a large pitched battle with the Teton Lakota and perhaps the Yanktons and buried their dead in a large mound in the Big Sioux River Valley.

It is probable that the Blood Run site (c.1500-1700 AD.) in southwestern Iowa was settled in the late proto-historic area by the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri Chiwere Siouans, along with the Omaha and Ponca Dhegiha Siouans. These groups were allied and known as the Oneota culture that is spread over a large Midwestern area. At Blood Run, they were under pressures from the Teton Lakota and Yankton Nakota peoples who had moved into the same region. According to Tom Thiessen's study of the Blood Run site, it once had 275 burial mounds. This is strong empirical evidence that mound building had persisted among these Siouan groups into late proto-historic times.

This information and that of a number of accounts of burial mound construction in the historic era demonstrate that the burial mounds in most of southern Minnesota were created by Siouan speaking Indians who had originated in the Ohio River Valley and eventually migrated into this region. There are of course many similar mounds in eastern North and South Dakota of a similar design and origin. Large mounds such as the Grand Mound near International Falls, Minnesota and others of the region are Algonquian in origin.


In a recent article entitled �The Headless Bison Calf: An Archaeological Mystery,� in the December 2004 issue of The Rake, David Mather describes one particular mound with Dakota associations. The article, which is available in full on The Rake�s website, describes the find by famed Minnesota archaeologist Lloyd Wilford of the remains of a headless buffalo calf and an adjacent log structure in the Fingerson burial mound near Glenwood, overlooking the shore of Lake Minnewaska in Pope County, Minnesota. The article also details Mather�s quest to understand the meaning of the buffalo skeleton�s burial in the mound, and provides some insight into the importance of such mounds in the landscape of Minnesota. Here are a few excerpts from a much longer article:

Mounds were built for more than two thousand years, by a number of American Indian cultures, and for a variety of purposes that fall under two common themes. They tended to be built for religious reasons and at times of the year when large numbers of people congregated in one place for an extended stay�which was generally in the spring or early summer.

The Fingerson Mound is one of more than eleven thousand that have been recorded in Minnesota (it is assumed that many more were never documented). Based on his findings from other mounds that shared a similar manner of human burial and general lack of associated artifacts, Wilford theorized that it was built during a time that archaeologists now call the Late Woodland period, ranging from approximately 500 A.D. until the time of local European contact in the late 1600s.

It was sixty years after Wilford�s excavation, in 1998, that I met the Fingerson calf for the first time. Much had changed in Minnesota archaeology. For one thing, we no longer seek out burial mounds for research excavations. State laws passed in the 1970s protect burial sites of all types from archaeologists as well as from bulldozers. Archaeological research related to mounds is now done in consultation with American Indian communities, with a goal of protecting cemetery sites rather than digging them up. The findings from past studies by Wilford and others now help archaeologists to recognize mounds and other grave sites with minimal disturbance, so that they can be preserved in place, with the same legal protection as modern cemeteries.

The state mandate, together with a federal law passed in 1990, created a boon for Minnesota archaeology. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act meant that many of the state�s early digs would receive increased scrutiny: It gave museums a deadline by which they were to consult with Indian tribes regarding human remains and sacred objects in their collections. If a connection was established to a federally recognized tribe, then the disposition of the remains and objects is decided by the tribe.

The process elicited a wide range of responses from archaeologists and American Indians, with some archaeologists protesting the �loss to science� in repatriating such artifacts. In my experience, though, quite the opposite is true. By the late 1990s, the Fingerson bison calf had been lying in a storage box for sixty years. In fact, most archaeological materials that came under review because of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act were being studied and documented for the first time. So my study of the calf occurred at a crossroads in Minnesota archaeology, amid a flurry of laboratory research.

The Fingerson calf was part of this repatriation process because it was found in a burial mound. Most of the attention in such cases fell on human remains. Other objects discovered in mounds were generally examined to confirm that they were burial offerings�objects intended to be with the people buried in the mound. Wilford�s research linked the Fingerson mound generally to the Dakota, establishing a path for consultation and repatriation.

Both then and now, the calf was interpreted as an integral part of the mound construction ceremony for several reasons, the most obvious ones being the lack of its head and its age. This was not just any little bison. Also important was its location within the mound. A number of earthworks excavated by Wilford had bison remains placed to the northwest of the mound center, suggesting a broader tradition beyond this one mound. This is the only case known, however, where the bison was a calf, and the only one with a missing head. It seemed likely that the head was removed as part of the religious and funerary rites conducted when the mound was built, but the reason why was far from clear.

As described in the article Mather, in part as a result of an estimated carbon-date of the buffalo skeleton dating it to about 150 years old, and the evidence of a log structure, has come to believe that the skeleton is associated with Sun Dance ceremonies that may have been undertaken at the mound.

This is the first interpretation of the Fingerson Mound, for all its flaws, and I would gladly welcome another. Archaeologists must be humble when we look at the available information about Minnesota�s past�data is so scarce that even after a century of research we are generally limited to description (as Wilford and his crew were), not interpretation. In the end, there is no way to definitively say that the Fingerson Mound is the archaeological remains of a Sun Dance. The available evidence certainly leaves much room for debate, and there�s so much more that we simply don�t know. As a suggestion, however, it holds out an intriguing possibility that reminds us of the complexity of mound-building and the ceremonies that accompanied it. It also best fits the known pieces of the puzzle and the historical context�the wooden poles, the visits by the Dakota, the headless calf�as I see them, and so it seems appropriate to link a burial mound to religious ideas. After all, ancient earthworks are not just piles of dirt any more than a cathedral is just a building. The mounds were constructed in a deliberate and symbolic way, as resting places for deceased loved ones, and also much more.

Imagine removing the topsoil from your entire lawn without metal tools or machines. Then imagine building and shaping a mound one basketload of soil at a time. That kind of work is not to be undertaken lightly. The Fingerson Mound was sixty feet in diameter and seven and a half feet tall, one of tens of thousands created throughout the region. A tiny fraction of them have been excavated by archaeologists. The vast majority have been bulldozed or plowed away.

I am grateful for what I�ve learned since I first encountered the bones of that bison calf in a cardboard box, though I regret that the mound was disturbed. If there�s a lesson here, perhaps it is to cherish the unknown. Despite the drastic remaking of the landscape during last century or so, much of Minnesota�s cultural and natural heritage remains, albeit in a fragile state. The Fingerson calf reminds us of what we have lost, such as Minnesota�s bison herds, and could point to the continuity of cultural traditions in the face of adversity. Not all development is bad, of course, and we can�t stop the future any more than we can change history. But as an elder once told me, �These things can co-exist.� The modern world is a more meaningful place when it�s rooted in that which has come before.