Burial Mounds: Earthen Records Of Wisconsin’s Native Peoples
Above Photo: Members of the Overpass Light Brigade, a group of artist-activists, gather at a mound in Lake Park to protest a bill that would weaken protections for mounds on private land in the state. By Overpass Light Brigade.
What we hold onto says a lot about who we are.
An incomparable aspect of our state’s culture came under attack when a bill was proposed to make it easier for landowners to excavate and perhaps destroy surviving Indian mounds in Wisconsin, calling it a “common sense” measure.
These easy-to-miss treasures, subtle contours in the landscape, are our state’s most enduring form of public art. Their erasure would echo an unfortunate history of other removals, of the displacement of indigenous people by newcomers and settlers.
Hundreds of people, including members of Wisconsin tribes who traveled from distant points in the state and beyond, gathered at the Capitol on one of the coldest days in recent memory to protest the bill. As they gathered Tuesday, hoisting “Save the Mounds” placards, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) announced that the measure would likely not come up for a vote this spring.
Rep. Robb Kahl (D-Monona), though, told those gathered at the Capitol, “They will push this bill again I assure you,” adding that development interests in his own district are at issue. “You need to keep your voices loud, and you need to keep coming back,” Kahl said.
The bill is supported by various manufacturing and development organizations, including Wingra Stone and Redi-Mix, which is in a legal battle with the state and the Ho-Chunk Nation over control of mounds in a quarry it owns.
Indeed, this controversy has been recurring for generations, each time raising awareness about these ancient survivors, the soft bumps that pervade the state in public parks, backyards, fields and private lands.
It is striking how little is known about these mounds. Why are there so many here? What purpose did they serve? What were their meanings?
What we do know is that as many as 20,000 of these earthen sculptures existed here when European and American explorers and settlers first arrived in this part of the world. Complex, patterned clusters of them were embedded into the landscape “harmoniously, even artfully,” write Robert A. Birmingham and Leslie E. Eisenberg in “Indian Mounds of Wisconsin,” one of the more approachable and authoritative books on the subject.
The mounds were created by native people during the relatively recent prehistoric past, from about 800 B.C. to 1000 A.D. They were so numerous, especially in the southern part of the state, that they created a significant obstacle for 19th-century farmers.
The elaborate, earthen animal forms, or effigy mounds, are especially concentrated in Wisconsin, though they are found in neighboring states as well. Some of them are or were enormous, including a destroyed bird effigy near Muscoda that had a wingspan of a quarter mile. The “soil shadow” of that mound can be seen from the air, according to Birmingham and Eisenberg. These effigies, of which there were about 3,000, are unique to our region and do not appear to have been created elsewhere in the world, scholars say.
Many mounds contain burial remains, though not all, and about 80% of the mounds that once existed here have already been lost, most plowed under long ago, according to scholars.
Their meanings remain a point of conjecture. Those gathered at the Capitol Tuesday, as well as artists and activists with the Overpass Light Brigade who gathered at a mound in Lake Park that evening, spoke of them as sacred. They described them as living memorials, spaces where ancestors, spirit guides and creation itself can be revered and called upon.
“We are shown how to live by this nurturing Mother Earth,” JoAnn Jones, a tribal judge of the Ho-Chunk nation, told the crowd in Madison. “Look at this creation. It will teach you everything you need to know to live your life…
“Ho-Chunks are still protecting these mounds for our future generations. They can look at them and wonder, they can dream, they can see the beauty of the mind of our ancestors.”
The bill from Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) and Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) places a significance on whether actual burial remains can be detected on the site of the mounds. I would argue that the cultural significance and what Jones called the visible “beauty of the mind of our ancestors” is equally worth preserving.
Because the mounds remain puzzling and are often unassuming in their aspect, they are often dismissed as a primitive art form or, worse, unremarkable humps of earth.
When considering the Land Art movement of the 1960s, poetic and often minimal interventions in the landscape, considered so radical then, it could be argued the mound builders were centuries ahead of their time. The mounds are also made of and with nature.
To those who look and see so little I would recommend the approachable writing of Increase Lapham, the state’s pioneering scientist, who in the middle of the 19th century devoted years of his life to identifying these mounds for a seminal text published by Smithsonian Institution, “The Antiquities of Wisconsin.”
Lapham wrote that the earthenworks were made by “people far advanced in the arts.”
For me, there is meaning in the minimalism of the mounds.
Though sidled up beside a tempestuous Great Lake, Wisconsin’s is not a dramatic topography. This is the time of year when a uniform blanket of white allows us to see its shape, the genial valleys, rolling drumlins and modest rises carved by advancing and retreating glaciers. The form of the landscape carries waters into wide, resolute rivers and countless lakes.
Our state is a place of subtle, grounded beauty and steadiness.
If the mounds were inspired, at least in part, by a sense of place and available materials, as so much art has been through the centuries, then these quiet, sinuous forms reflect something of our part of the world back to us.
They are and should remain an inextricable part of the Wisconsin landscape.
Or, as Lapham himself put it in an 1836 newspaper editorial: “Let us hope in Wisconsin, the case will be different — that here at least the future traveler will not have to regret the loss of those records of an ancient people.”