The absurdity of “investigating” Wisconsin’s ancient burial mounds

A new bill threatens the state’s most cherished historical sites. 

Outline drawings of Madison-area burial mounds, from the pamphlet "Native American Mounds In Madison And Dane County," 1994, City of Madison.

Outline drawings of Madison-area burial mounds, from the pamphlet "Native American Mounds In Madison And Dane County," 1994, City of Madison.

Tens of thousands of effigy mounds in the shapes of bears, panthers, birds, turtles, and other animals and abstract forms once existed in the landscape of what is now Wisconsin. Around 1,500 were believed to have been in the Madison area alone. As Wisconsin was settled by colonizers, about 80 percent of these mounds were destroyed for farming, roadways, and other development.

The effigy mounds that remain are some of the only surviving physical evidence of human activity in the region during what archaeologists term the Early to Late Woodland Era (800 BC-1200 AD), and the only evidence of burial rites by these people, who are believed to be the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Surviving mounds exist on the UW-Madison campus at the Arboretum, Picnic Point and on Observatory Hill, in the Edna Taylor Conservation Park, Aztalan State Park, Governor Nelson State Park, Cherokee Park, and elsewhere around Dane County (and throughout the Midwest).

These mounds are a vital link to human history on this continent, considered to be an enduring art form whose value is acknowledged by tribal and non-tribal peoples. According to Ho-Chunk Nation spokesperson Collin Price, archaeologists have not been able to determine the exact meaning of the mounds, but the Ho-Chunk people “understand their significance through stories and oral tradition.”

Currently, the remaining burial mounds in the state of Wisconsin are registered and protected from destruction or excavation by the Wisconsin Historical Society under the Wisconsin Burial Site Protection Act. State Representative Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) , with the cosponsorship of Rep. Chris Kapenga, (R-Delafield) , has introduced a bill that would remove these protections.

AB620 would require the director of the Historical Society to issue landowners a permit to excavate these mounds (at the landowner’s expense) for the purpose of determining the presence of human remains. If human remains are found, the mounds would remain protected, but those with no human remains found could be destroyed. Price warns that taking the steps to make this distinction can have destructive consequences and that excavation can result in damage to the mounds. “Beating into these [mounds], for whatever reason, cannot be undone,” said Price. “It’s important that we stop the process of beating up the mounds to see what’s in them, or for development and roadways. They cannot be replaced.”

On his Facebook page, Brooks posted that the amendment “makes common-sense reforms to current law to help ensure that private property is not wrongly placed on the State Historical Society site catalog and essentially frozen from use.”

If the first part of that statement seems absurd—the idea that it’s “common sense” to excavate and destroy effigy mounds based on “private property” rights when the Ho-Chunk were forcibly removed from the region 11 times—move on to the second part. Brooks’ statement about the land being “frozen from use” appears to refer to an ongoing legal battle between the Ho-Chunk Nation and Wingra Stone and Redi-Mix, a Madison-based company that has a burial mound within its quarry, located in McFarland.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that two of the state’s most powerful business lobbying groups, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Association and the Wisconsin Builders Association, already support the bill. Wingra Stone and Redi-Mix is a member of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. As Madison journalist Emily Mills pointed out in her Journal Sentinel column this week, the bill comes off as yet another legislative attempt to serve the interests of one company in particular, a la the 2013 mining bill.

In response to the bill, the Ho-Chunk nation is organizing a protest on Tuesday, January 12 from noon to 2 p.m. outside the State Capitol building. Information about the bill, the Ho-Chunk’s perspective on the mounds, and transportation to the protest can be found at their Save the Mounds website and this Facebook event.

Bob Shea, president of Wingra Stone and Redi-Mix, claims that the company could make $10-15 million from destroying the burial mound within their quarry and accessing the aggregate beneath. But setting the precedent that it’s acceptable to destroy these mounds when financially beneficial wrongfully cheapens their immense value.

Burial mounds represent a connection to our human past akin to Stonehenge and the portal tombs of Ireland; they are chronologically aligned with the construction of the Temple of Baal at Palmyra, the Great Wall of China, and other sites that have been cherished worldwide. “These mounds are extremely significant because they play a spiritual role in our culture and history,” says Price. “They’re not just burial sites. They’re sacred to us, so destroying them is something that can’t be undone. They’ve been here for a thousand years, and they hold a strong cultural and spiritual significance to the Ho-Chunk. Excavation [to determine presence of human remains] defeats the entire purpose of the preservation. Why would you open them up or remove them just to see?”