Heim Effigy Mound
Wisconsin Historical Society
A field party led by Charles E. Brown prepares to excavate the Heim effigy mound, in the shape of a fox or a wolf, Middleton, 1938.

Desecration of Graves Sanctioned by Wisconsin Assembly Bill

Pam Hughes

The Ho-Chunk Nation has been in a legal tussle with a Dane County mining company that wants to destroy a state-protected burial mound in one of its limestone quarries to get the aggregate underneath. The five-year-old conflict turned red-hot on December 29, 2015 when Republicans sent Assembly Bill 620 to the Wisconsin State legislature’s Committee on Environment and Forestry.

“The legislation opens the door to widespread destruction and desecration of mound and burial sites throughout the entire state, specifically by imposing the requirement that conclusive proof of burials must be provided in order to have a site catalogued and protected. The limitations of existing technology would necessitate the use of digging and excavation to provide this proof, which would ultimately be the actual physical disturbance of the site and in the case of mounds, irreversible damage and destruction,” Henning Garvin, District 2 Representative for the Ho-Chunk Nation, told ICTMN.

Charles E. Brown, Map showing the distribution of Indian mounds in Wisconsin, 1916. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

The Ho-Chunk Nation will hold a protest on the west side of the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin on January 12, beginning at noon, to raise awareness of this latest anti-Indian policy from Republican state legislators. Visit SavetheMounds.com for further details and to access the tribe’s petition. To access chartered bus schedules for the rally, visit Ho-ChunkNation.com.

The Ho-Chunk consider themselves keepers of these sacred sites in Wisconsin and direct descendants of the “Mound Builders.” They built major ceremonial centers incorporating mound complexes and settlements between 2,200 and 1,600 years ago throughout the Midwest, according to the Newberry Library in Chicago. Two of the best-known sites are the Ohio Earthworks and Cahokia in St. Louis. Other complexes extended as far north as Canada and as far south as Seminole territory in Florida. Effigy (cultural representations) and geometric (conical, linear) burial mounds are prominent in these complexes.

“Such burials remind us of Westminster Abbey in London in which the burials of people of historical importance memorialize the history and achievements of England,” says the Newberry Library website.

Rabbit Mound, part of the McConnell Mound Group on the western shore of Lake Waubesa, Dane County, photographed by George R. Fox, 1919. (Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College)

Burial mounds are called “barrows” in England, “cairns” in Scotland and “tumuli” elsewhere in Europe. The mound of Emperor Shihuangdi in China is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Japanese royalty and prominent aristocrats were buried in mounds. Although debate as to whether or not Mound Builders were distinct from the Adena and Hopewell cultures prevails among Western academics, the high stature of burial mounds is not debated.

Garvin says the sites are of world-class heritage quality, on par with the ruins of Rome and Greece. The single bird effigy site at the Wingra Stone limestone quarry is the last of seven contained in the Ward Mound Group and is of particular significance to the Ho-Chunk Nation.

This plaque marks an effigy mound on the Edgewood College campus in Madison, Wisconsin. (Courtesy Edgewood College Library)

“We don’t need to be studied to be able to know there are remains,” said Ho-Chunk District 1 Representative David Greendeer in an interview with WORT-FM in Madison on December 31. “Many of these mounds predate Christ. They are older than the Egyptian pyramids.”

Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska Vice Chairman Alan Kelley agreed with Greendeer, stating the Ioway were a branch of the Ho-Chunk and still share the history of the sites. In addition, for his tribe, effigy mounds were sites for treaty signings. The Iowa Tribe has recently witnessed one of the worst cases of mismanagement in National Park Service history where 78 Effigy Mounds National Monument construction projects were approved and built from 1999 to 2010. The projects were in violation of federal laws and damaged the mounds, according to the Des Moines Register.

The National Park Service’s internal investigation of the matter entitled “Serious Mismanagement Report” stated, “It is clear that while the cultural resources program was being dismantled due to a professed lack of funding, the maintenance program was rapidly growing, acquiring approximately 60 percent of EFMO’s [Effigy Mounds National Monument] base funding increases.”

Two-tailed water spirit (once thought to be a turtle) on Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, photographed by George R. Fox, 1919. (Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College)

Besides describing incredible corruption, the report also describes how federal officials allowed destruction of the Iowa mounds by creating the same type of loophole that the Wisconsin Republican proposed changes in burial site protection law would create.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act any federal undertaking on a designated or eligible historic property is subject to a Section 106 Compliance Review, which assesses, and then avoids, mitigates or minimizes adverse effects in consultation with all concerned parties, including state and tribal historic preservation officers. Optimally, an “undertaking” is considered on a case-by-case basis.

In the case of the Effigy Monument National Park investigation, the report describes management self-proclaiming Section 106 and other regulation compliance exemptions based on previous “disturbances” in the park by farming or infrastructure construction. Officials claimed that disturbances negated the need for consultation on the sites. Similarly, the Wisconsin law as proposed would allow disturbance of burial mounds to prove the existence of human remains, and that type of disturbance could eliminate the mound from completely protected status if mitigation or minimization were deemed appropriate based on the degree of disturbance.

The only surviving example of an intaglio (indented) mound in the shape of a panther, located outside Fort Atkinson. Photographed by George R. Fox, 1919. (Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College)

Add to this the scandal of former Effigy Mounds National Park superintendent Thomas Munson’s removal of human remains over a period of 22 years, and it is clear that improvement of cultural preservation laws and oversight, not eradication of laws, is what is needed. Mistakes are very costly considering that Wisconsin has already lost 80 percent of its burial mounds to urban development, according to the website Recollection Wisconsin, a statewide collaboration of cultural institutions.

RELATED: National Park Services Grave Robber: Man Pleads Guilty to Stealing Remains

“This isn’t a new issue for us,” Greendeer told bill co-author Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) at a recent town hall meeting. “Every place that we walk within the State of Wisconsin, every building that’s been built, every metro city, is over our people. This is no different… This is a holy site.”

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onedman's picture
Submitted by onedman on
It is my understanding that the mound builders were The Hopi during their migration period after reading Frank Waters book The Hopi. They do in fact predate Egypt. They are sacred not to just the Hopi but to everyone. I have signed the petition and I hope others do as well because these mounds and the mound builders are a worlds treasure, much like The Tor in England, where it is said King Arthur is buried. They predate history itself. They are myth, legend and history all in one and belong to everyone. Not to be disposed of on some whim or due to greed.

shotwell77's picture
Submitted by shotwell77 on
The earliest mounds in Wisconsin date back 2,500 years and almost all contain burials. Wisconsin led the country in historical preservation in the early 20th century. Now they are considering destroying these incredible and beautiful ancient feats of engineering for *gravel and limestone*? I hope the state legislator realizes what a mistake this bill is and soundly renounces it. And preserves the mounds created by the ancestors of Ho-Chunk, Iowa, Missouria, Otoe, Menominee, and Anishinaabe peoples.

shotwell77's picture
Submitted by shotwell77 on
To Onedman: The mounds are important but have absolutely nothing to do with the Hopi people. Except that Hopi people would probably not care to see them destroyed to mine limestone.