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The Death a Mound

Politics and Human Remains in Minnesota

Part 8

 -April 21, 2005-

When Is a Mound Sacred?

Questions for the Sacred Grounds Forum

On April 22 and 23, 2005 the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the Minnesota Historical Society are co-sponsoring the Sacred Grounds Forum at Jeffers Petroglyphs in Cottonwood County, Minnesota. The following is a description of the event put out by its sponsors:

The event is geared to policy-making Minnesota archaeologists and resource managers and enrollment is limited by the facilities at its remote setting. However, the location is among the most beautiful places where such an event could occur, a special place amidst the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, containing 2,000 images carved in a bedrock outcrop of Sioux Quartzite, images of humans, animals, tools, and shapes carved by ancient Native Americans.

The site is also a good place to talk about sacred sites since Jeffers Petroglyphs provides a model for protecting sacred spaces in a way that involves the American Indian community. Just last fall the National Trust for Historic Preservation presented its prestigious Trustee Emeritus Award for Excellence in the Stewardship of Historic Sites for the Minnesota Historical Society�s work at Jeffers.

Since the completion of a new visitor center in 1998, members of the American Indian Community have worked with the staff at Jeffers Petroglyphs. Elder Joe Williams stated: �Jeffers Petroglyphs is nominated because of its excellent preservation and heritage educational programs. These activities preserve an American Indian sacred site and teaches the public in a meaningful manner about America�s Native Culture.�

The Sacred Grounds Forum may be a worthy effort, though one can question why it is limited to archaeologists, cultural resource managers, and American Indian spiritual people, with only American Indian spiritual men on the panel. The protection of sacred sites and the desire to persuade people that they are worth saving is a public need that goes well beyond archaeologists and cultural resource professionals. It can never be an elitist enterprise that goes on in private.

The Sacred Grounds Forum appears to be motivated in part by the Cooperative Studies Workshop, held at Izatys Resort on Lake Mille Lacs in February, an event which was vaunted as the beginning of an effort to broaden the stewardship of culturally important places, and which promised an ongoing set of events to deal with the issues raised. The Sacred Grounds Forum appears to be an unfortunate return to the idea that stewardship of cultural resources can be the work of the few rather than the many.

On the other hand, it may be that archaeologists and cultural resource managers are among those who need persuading the most of the importance of sacred places and the need to protect them. So, perhaps it is a good idea if the "American Indian spiritual men" have an opportunity to take on the job of educating them in the peaceful setting of Jeffers. It may be too much to expect that the event will result in universal definitions of sacredness, but it is hoped that at some point the insights obtained at this event will be shared with a wider public.

This series, "The Death of a Mound," has been intended to explore issues related to the treatment of sacred sites in Minnesota. In it we have examined the events that took place at the Lincoln Mounds in Bloomington, Minnesota during the summer and fall of 2004, and how and why they happened. It is hoped that in the not-too-distant future it may be possible for all concerned about the issues related to the Lincoln Mounds may be able to come together, as some suggested at Izatys in February, in respectful and collegial dialoge to address the questions raised by the what happened in Bloomington. In the meantime, since many of us were not invited to attend the Sacred Grounds Forum, we have composed some questions that we think need exploring in light of some recent events, including but not limited to, the Lincoln Mounds.


What makes a mound a sacred place?

What makes a mound a sacred place? Is it sacred when it is a modest round shape rising only a few feet above the surrounding country, part of a complex of mounds, some of which are now gone?

Does it have to be on a bluff above a broad sweep of river, on the edge of a cliff, above a sacred cave?

Or does it have to be shaped like a serpent, stretching along the bank of a river, carefully mowed to highlight its shape and proportions?

Is a mound a sacred place when it was only four feet high a hundred years ago and sat in a farmer�s front yard, and later in a park, unnoticed for a generation, but is now two blocks from the Mall of America by a light rail line, where someone wants to build a parking ramp?

Is a mound sacred when it is in the backyard of someone who wants to build a swimming pool or an addition to his house, but not if it is on a prime development site?

Do there have to be the remains of people buried in a mound for it to be sacred? How many bundles, or bodies have to be in a mound for it to be sacred?

And how many sets of human remains have to be excavated from a mound to verify the sacredness of a mound? How many archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, cultural resource managers, city planners, and developers does it take to verify the sacredness of a mound? When they are done is it still sacred?

Who can or should decide what happens to a mound?

Should Indian people be the ones to decide what should happen? Which Indians?  Should it be tribal governments? Spiritual leaders? Spiritual men? Descendants of the people who built or used the mound? People whose ancestors lived 300 miles from where the mound is and had nothing to do with the building of the mounds but who are American Indians?

If American Indian people are responsible for American Indian sacred places are they permitted to destroy them? Do people who are not American Indian have a right to question the destruction of sacred places carried out by Indian people?

Are things sacred because people respect them, but not if they don�t? Who is to say that something is sacred and what do they have to do to prove that it is?

If something is sacred what should we do about it? Should we build a sidewalk and put up plaques to guide visitors as they walk through the sacred space? Or should we build a fence around the sacred place that says: �Indian Sacred Site�?

When is it too late to save a mound?

Is it too late to save a mound when its surface is scraped by plowing, or when a sidewalk is cut through one edge of it, or when a trench for a utility line is dug through the center?

Is it too late when an unwritten agreement is reached or when the cultural resource manager says he had no choice? Is it too late when the archaeologists are done? Or when the last shovel of dirt is removed or the last cement is poured by the developer?

Is it too late when the archaeological report is finally made public or when people finally tell you what really happened? Is it too late when it is announced that the mound that was there had Hopewellian features?

Is it too late when the Indian leader says we must make sure it does not happen again? Is it too late when the book is written that refers to the �former site� of the mound?

Is it too late when your children ask you where you were when it happened?

Is a mound a sacred place when it is no longer there?

Is a mound a sacred place when it is a hole in the ground, when it is just the idea of the mound that once was there but is now gone? When a parking ramp is built where a mound used to be is the parking ramp sacred?

Is a place sacred when no one knows about it but people remember the stories that speak of places like that and then one day someone discovers the place, and says, yes, there is sacredness there?

If the dirt that was once in a mound is used to build a highway, is the highway sacred? If the dirt is distributed throughout the landscape is the landscape sacred? If the remains and some of the dirt are moved from a mound and put in another place in the form of a modest round-shaped or oblong mound is the new mound sacred?

Or does the new mound have to be shaped like a serpent and does it have to be above a bend in the river, on the edge of a cliff, above a sacred cave, mowed to accentuate its shape, and marked by a sign that says �Indian Sacred Site�?