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The Death of a Mound

Politics and Human Remains in Minnesota

Part 3

 -November 17, 2004-


The Power to "Authenticate and Identify"

is the Power to Destroy


Bruce White


Authentication is the process under Minnesota law whereby state officials examine sites that may be cemeteries or burial places and demonstrate that these sites actually contain human remains. Once remains are authenticated, an effort is made to determine if they are American Indian and to identify them as to their tribal origin. This process of authentication and identification can be used to trigger the strict protections for burial sites under state law. They can also be used as a means for removing remains and destroying the mounds in which they are located.

The processes used in Minnesota by archaeologists to authenticate burial places are many and varied. As archaeologist Grant Goltz wrote this year, there is in fact no statutory definition of what constitutes authentication. A recent book on Minnesota�s burial mounds notes that the Minnesota Office of State Archaeologist or OSA, in conducting the authentication which is under his authority in state law, has used a variety of techniques, including mapping, map comparisons, remote sensing, and coring. At so-called heavily disturbed sites �where no surface evidence could be found of the presence of remains heavy equipment is sometimes used to remove overlying disturbed soils to look for subsurface features.� In other cases when endangered remains were uncovered and could not be left in place, reburial took place.

These more intrusive measures at disturbed sites are not authentication or identification at all but mitigation, the process of dealing with the potential damage done to a historic resource by construction or other impacts. But the process of authentication, identification, and mitigation have come to be bound together, through the interaction of the OSA, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council or MIAC, and the developers and archaeologists with which they deal, in a bundle of practices used to deal with human remains when they are encountered in construction. This has resulted in a process in which what might normally be several steps, including examining sites and making careful decisions about what to do with them, is collapsed into a single destructive step. In the process, authentication and identification can undermine the very protections that they are designed to trigger.

Despite what many people outside the field of archaeology may think, these destructive processes are not the direct result of the power and methods of archaeology, but rather the byproduct of a dysfunctional system through which archaeology in Minnesota and elsewhere is sometimes practiced, in which the various interests involved serve the needs of their various constituencies, with little accountability to the public.

There is no doubt that archaeology can make valuable contributions to human knowledge about the multiple histories of peoples and places, especially when used by a community to document its own past, for its own purposes. Archaeological surveys of village sites or even burial places of a people who were driven off their land into exile may help that community to stake a claim on the landscape by proving a legitimacy that others deny. Such surveys may also help a community to understand its own history by documenting its own earlier way of life.

On the other hand, there are some things that archaeology is poorly suited to studying. For example, sacred places have meaning and value that cannot be proven or affirmed archaeologically. The material aspects of a place cannot tell us whether it is sacred. Yet there is a tendency to demand material evidence of sacredness. However, if a hill, a mound, or a set of mounds is known to be both a burial site and a sacred ceremonial site, to what purpose is an invasive archaeological survey that is unwelcome to the people for whom the place is important? Will the survey show through some empirical evidence acceptable to believers and unbelievers alike that the place is sacred?

In the case of the Lincoln Mounds, currently being authenticated through the use of heavy machinery, the key issue is not to prove sacredness�since sacredness is not a concept recognized by Minnesota Statutes relating to human burials�but rather to demonstrate that these mounds, first mapped in the 19th century, are indeed cemeteries subject to the protections under state law.

It might be supposed that some fairly simple procedures could have demonstrated that fact. During the survey of the Ceridian project which located Mound 4 of the Lincoln Mounds in 1998, initial survey work involved soil coring and surface examination. Once Mound 4 was located an additional work plan was developed involving hand excavation. The work plan stated that if intact burials were located in the mound site, �they will be covered and left in place until the mitigation.� No decisions were made at that stage of the investigation about what form the mitigation would take.

This 1998 work plan is a marked contrast to that developed in July 2004 for the authentication survey involving Mounds 1, 2, and 3 of the Lincoln Mounds. The 2004 work plan written just before the Bloomington project began not only laid out the procedure for exploring the site, but also defined the actions that would be taken to mitigate the proposed $700 million project�s effect on what might be found, through removal of those remains and their reburial. This means that prior to the finding of any remains or other features, the entire process was pre-determined, with no allowance for any further discussion or consideration of the best course to take if any substantial burials were located.

How is it that a process designed to authenticate and identify burials so that they can be protected has come to take this form? The work plan was shaped by the complex relationship between the OSA and the MIAC, entities which have been fighting over turf, sometimes using mounds as the ground on which to fight. For years archaeologists in Minnesota have been treated to an ongoing administrative soap opera in which the OSA and MIAC have fought over the exercise of authority over Indian burial grounds.

In 1998 and 1999, the MIAC sought unsuccessfully to obtain sole statutory authority over the authentication of Indian cemeteries and burial places. MIAC objected to the fact that the current State Archaeologist used mechanical excavation for exploring a few burial places. MIAC also insisted that under a previous State Archaeologist, �burial sites identified in maps��such as the maps drawn in the 19th century by the archaeologists A. J. Hill and Theodore Lewis�were considered to be authenticated cemeteries, but that the current State Archaeologist required additional proof (See the Minnesota Legislative Auditor�s report on OSA, p. 15).

In the case of Lincoln Mounds 1, 2, 3, following this unintrusive procedure for authentication would mean simply demonstrating the exact location of these mounds mapped in the 19th century. But the work plan negotiated between the OSA, the MIAC, and the developer in July 2004 to govern the work at this site provided for a more elaborate and invasive survey.

The work plan called for obtaining permits and doing background research, geophysical investigation using ground-penetrating radar, clearing of trees and brush, formal trenching and subsequent skim shoveling of Mound 2, and informal trenching and subsequent skim shoveling of Mounds 1 and 3. Procedures for identification and removal of human remains involved recording and removal of the remains �per request of the MIAC� and subsequent reburial of the remains either in the new mound created in 1998 across the road at the Ceridian site or through the construction of another new mound.

In an initial version of the work plan, dated July 13, 2004, all of these steps were described as having the following purposes:

After further deliberation, the work plan was altered so that the archaeological survey and the reburial aspects of the plan were separated into two sections. The first part, involving the archaeological survey was described as an �Authentication Work Plan,� designed to fulfill the authority of the OSA to authenticate the site. The section was approved by the State Archaeologist. The second part, now described as an �Additional Cultural Resources Work Plan� included the discussion about removing human remains and reburying them, a process designed to help fulfill MIAC's authority to identify and rebury remains. This section and the entire document were approved by MIAC and the developer:

This July 14, 2004, work plan, shows the degree to which the fate of any human remains found at the Lincoln Mounds was pre-determined. The work plan also shows the elasticity in the terms authentication and identification, the degree to which these words can be made to refer to almost any aspect of dealing with an archaeological site. While an outside observer might assume that the procedures are limited to careful study, in fact, in Bloomington, they involved an invasive process, in which the removal of remains and the destruction of the site were assumed from the beginning.

This is not the first time in Minnesota or elsewhere that the process of careful study of archaeological sites has involved the destruction of the site being studied. Archaeologists sometimes describe their work as �controlled destruction,� and justify what they do as preferable to wanton destruction caused by development without a prior survey. After all, careful archaeology has the potential, at least, to contribute to the sum total of human knowledge.

What is surprising, however, is that the work involving the Lincoln Mounds is being undertaken under the auspices of the MIAC, a state-funded agency with a long history of defending Indian burial sites. In fact, Minnesota statutes do not define the stance of the MIAC toward such burial sites. The law simply provides that �No authenticated and identified Indian burial ground may be relocated unless the request to relocate is approved by the Indian Affairs Council.� There is no criteria or guidance given in the law for MIAC�s decision as to whether or not to approve such a decision. The assumption that the MIAC will always be more pro-active in defending such sites comes merely from some previous practice and from the fact that the MIAC represents Indian people in various ways. And there appears to be a stereotype that Indian people whatever their background will always defend Indian burial sites.

One point often missed is that the MIAC does not represent all of Minnesota's Indian people. While the staff of MIAC appears to consist mainly of Indian people and the statutory representatives on the council represent federally-recognized tribal governments, there is no direct representation on the council for Indian spiritual leaders or for Indian people who are part of non-federally recognized groups. For this reason it should not be surprising that some Indian people might question a decision by MIAC to collaborate in the destruction of an Indian burial ground and question the grounds on which this decision was made.

In the case of the Lincoln Mounds, the MIAC consulted initially with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community government, which represents the closest federally-recognized Dakota community to the work site. MIAC also appears to have involved some Indian spiritual leaders. The authentication and identification work plan specified that prior to beginning the survey work and after the completion of the work, a �prayer offering or other appropriate ceremony as appropriate� would take place. It is not known  which spiritual leaders were involved with the initial ceremony. After receiving criticism from the non-federally recognized Mendota Dakota, that other Dakota communities should be involved, the Prairie Island tribal government was eventually consulted, after the survey was already underway.

These two community governments and unnamed spiritual leaders appear to have given their approval to what is happening at the Lincoln Mounds. To many this approval closes off all further interest in questioning the process currently being carried out. If Indian tribes and the MIAC have no problem with what is happening why should others? But was this approval given freely and with full knowledge of what might be found at the site and of what the various options might be for preservation?

An individual with knowledge of the Shakopee community states that this community, while not happy with what has occurred in Bloomington, felt that it had little leverage in bringing about another outcome because the case involved private land. Also, Shakopee�s support for preservation of Indian sites has been highly selective. The community picks and chooses its battles, with special attention given to sites close to Shakopee or ones on public land.

Others with knowledge of Prairie Island suggest that the gambling issue is important. Attempts by Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to blackmail Indian into sharing gambling revenues, makes tribal governments fearful of raising issues involving burial mounds. Why would they want to be seen standing in the way of a $700 million project near the Mall of America?

A recent rumor spread by another individual with connections to Prairie Island has suggested that tribal leaders there believed that even if they saved the Lincoln Mounds this would not guarantee the remains there would not be endangered again in the future. It is said that these leaders have been assured that the remains found there will be removed to Indian trust land where they can never be endangered again. This is a surprising suggestion since as far as is known a removal of the Bloomington remains to Shakopee or Prairie Island has not been discussed publicly.

These various sources confirm the suspicion that neither tribal governments nor MIAC can be assumed to be the strongest supporters of the preservation of Indian burial cemeteries or other historic sites, for that matter. Given the right political circumstances, and political pressures, these entities will on occasion act like any other entrenched political bodies, cutting deals and working things out in ways that they think best, in ways with which individuals and groups whose voices have not been heard may reasonably disagree.

The same is true of local governments such as the City of Bloomington, which wields the power to approve and disapprove building projects that have the potential to effect sites of cultural and historical importance. In Bloomington the pressure for development is intense and it appears to have eroded some of the protections once given to burial-mound sites such as the Lincoln Mounds.

In particular, the once-vaunted pro-active protection of mounds shown in Bloomington in earlier years is not what it used to be. As described earlier, the Bloomington city code states that the Natural and Historical Resources Commission must pass on any certificate of appropriateness to allow alteration of a historic or prehistoric site. This would then go to the city council for approval. As it happens, the Bloomington Natural and Historical Resources Commission was abolished in the past ten years. When asked what happened to the commission, a public official stated that it was abolished because it had had so little to do. This official stated that the city council now performs the role described for the commission in the city code.

Others familiar with the way things used to work in Bloomington allege that the abolishing of the commission happened because the commission on occasion may have been seen as an obstacle to quick approval of development projects. Whether this is true or not, the City of Bloomington has taken other steps to streamline the approval process for development in the so-called Airport South district east of the Mall of America where the Lincoln Mounds are located.

Under normal circumstances Minnesota state law provides for a process of environmental review that can be undertaken in relation to specific development projects. Based on such review a city could order an environmental impact statement for each project that had the �potential for significant environmental effects,� a review which would be paid for by the proposer of the project. Such reviews have the potential for significant financial costs for developers. To streamline the process and accelerate development in the Airport South district Bloomington ordered an alternative process to take place, an AUAR or Alternative Urban Areawide Review. This process is designed to remove the need for subsequent environmental review, by identifying ahead of time, among other things, potential effects on cultural resources and environment and providing for a mitigation plan for these effects.

In the case of the Airport South district, the AUAR did identify the Lincoln Mounds, among other archaeological sites, as some of the cultural resources found in the district. The AUAR stated that if archaeological sites such as the Lincoln Mounds were found during construction projects, they would be discussed with the Office of State Archaeologist, MIAC, and appropriate Indian tribes, following the provisions of Minnesota Statute 307.08. Beyond such consultation and actions following state law, no mitigation measures were adopted to provide any special protections for the Lincoln Mounds or other archaeological sites.

In interpreting the AUAR, it should be kept in mind that there is nothing in state law that would preclude Bloomington from adopting higher protections for burial mounds found in city limits than are found in state law. Bloomington could have adopted a mitigation plan that would have called for preservation in place rather than the removal and reburial of remains. In effect it appears that the Airport South AUAR effectively ceded to the OSA and MIAC any authority that the City of Bloomington might have to provide its own protection for the Lincoln Mounds. If OSA and MIAC did not protect the Lincoln Mounds then it appears that Bloomington gave away its ability to do so on its own.

In ceding its authority to MIAC and OSA, the city of Bloomington also appears to have ceded its ability to evaluate the actions taken by these agencies. On July 19, 2004, the Bloomington City Council, acting as itself and apparently as the Natural and Historic Resources Commission, approved a �certificate of appropriateness for site alteration for field survey,� for the Lincoln Mounds survey. The survey was said to involve �initial archaeological survey including hand excavations of potential intact soils at three sites located on the property,� done under the supervision of OSA and MIAC.

No particular conditions were attached to this survey. However, it has been assumed that the results of the survey will have an effect on the approval process for the $700 million development. Bloomington officials expect an archaeological report to be submitted to them following the completion of the survey, perhaps the same archaeological report provided for in the July 14, 2004, work plan:

Beyond this scholarly apparatus, it is not hard to imagine the gist of the report. Given what we know from the work plan, it will simply say that the sites of Mounds 1, 2, and 3 of the Lincoln Mounds were authenticated, and that the remains found were identified (or not) and removed, with the approval of MIAC. It may be that the report will insist that the mounds in question were too �disturbed� to warrant preservation. It will be concluded that Lincoln Mounds 1, 2, and 3 have now been thoroughly studied, authenticated, identified, and mitigated and that they now effectively no longer exist. As such there will be no impediment found for the pending construction of a massive underground parking garage on the site where they once stood.

Assuming the City of Bloomington receives this report, it is not to be expected that city officials will give it any thorough review. One Bloomington official emphasizes that the city merely expects assurances from OSA and MIAC that state law has been followed. Given the fact that the Bloomington City Council continues to act as its own Natural and Historical Resources Commission, it is to be expected that whatever report the city receives from MIAC or the archaeologists will receive only cursory examination.

It is through means such as this that the processes of authentication and identification have come to be used to destroy burial sites. As shown here the ultimate decisions made about what would happen to the remaining Lincoln Mounds occurred in the close interaction of the OSA, MIAC, and the developer and the archaeologists working for him. Throughout this process there was little role, or even opportunity, for members of the public to participate in the decision making. The only possible exception was at the Bloomington City Council meeting in July, when the certificate of appropriateness was presented to the council. But how many citizens of Bloomington would have assumed that approval of a document authorizing �initial archaeological survey including hand excavations of potential intact soils at three sites located on the property,� was actually a decision permitting the destruction of Indian cemeteries?

Decision-making like this based on little public discussion of the real issues involved does not serve the people of Bloomington and of Minnesota well. Even when on private land, even when Indian burials are involved, mounds are ultimately public resources that belong to all of Minnesota�s citizens, not just property owners, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, or the federally-recognized Dakota tribal officials. A dysfunctional system, in which, without much public discussion, the procedures designed to protect Indian cemeteries are used to destroy them, clearly demonstrates the need for change and improvement in the system through with such cemeteries are authenticated and identified.