Wisconsin tribe fights city hall over sacred burial mounds

PHOTO: Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, gestures at the ceiling of a room in the Wisconsin state capitol, Jan. 13, 2016. The murals on it depict the history of Native Americans in Wisconsin.© Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America

MADISON, Wis. — A painting of French explorer Jean Nicolet hangs on the wall of State Senator Robert Cowles’ office here in the Wisconsin Capitol. It’s clearly a white man’s imagining of power, showing Nicolet firing a pair of flintlock pistols into the air as Menominee tribal members observe in awe.

In the second week of January, members of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin were trying to paint a different picture of power, galvanized by a bill announced last year that could strip protections for ancient burial sites around the state. With papers spread across a wooden conference table, Ho-Chunk legislator and lobbyist David Greendeer and Ho-Chunk attorney Mike Rogowski were trying to make the case that the proposed legislation wasn’t just a Ho-Chunk issue, but an issue for tribes across the state.

Ryan Smith, chief of staff for Cowles, looked at the maps, diagrams, photos, memos and documents, and listened.

Across the United States, tribal interests in sacred sites are colliding with federal, state, public and private interests. The ancestral home of the Western Shoshone in Nevada is facing destruction from a proposed gold mine, while international copper interests are eyeing the religious grounds of the San Carlos Apache in Arizona.

© Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
Hundreds of Native American tribal members and their supporters crowd the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin on Jan. 12, 2016 to protest a bill that would loosen protection of sacred burial mounds in the state. © Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
© Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
Protesters gather outside the Wisconsin capitol building. © Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America

However, in Wisconsin and other parts of North America, the ability of tribal nations to protect their interests has advanced dramatically over the last century. While the fight for indigenous rights was once advanced through grassroots action, it now can be waged by lobbyists, lawyers and politically savvy tribal leaders.

“This is the Wingra site,” said Ho-Chunk legislator David Greendeer as he pointed to a map. “This is what it looked like in 1914. It was already being excavated by the owner so they shredded the mounds that were down here.”

Smith tilted his head to make sense of the shapes: one looked like a bird with its wings outstretched, another like a fox. Such effigy mounds — large, earthen structures visible from the sky — have historically housed human remains. And for three decades, Wisconsin has protected human burial sites regardless of what they look like or how old they are.

On the ground, effigy mounds often look like small hills on the landscape. From the air, they more closely resemble massive art projects like the Nazca geoglyphs in southern Peru. Archeologists have discovered soil imported from hundreds of miles away, and many of the structures are aligned to the solstice, the equinox and true north. It’s estimated that 80 per cent of the states’ effigy mounds have already been destroyed.

© Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
The Ho-Chunk are fighting to preserve the burial mounds in the middle of the Wingra Stone and Redi-Mix quarry. © Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
© Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. © Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America

“These are really incredible sites that all of humanity can really celebrate,” said Henning Garvin, a Ho-Chunk legislator and lobbyist. “The effigy mounds don’t exist anywhere in the world. They’re unique to this region.”

The Wingra site is in a Madison suburb, in a private quarry surrounded by boxy houses and quiet streets. On the east end of the open quarry, which contains an estimated 1.5 million tons of limestone, a thatch of trees sticks up like a cowlick from the untouched island that rises high above the pit. This is the ancient effigy mound. In the winter, snow gathers on the bald landscape and collects around the trunks of leafless trees. Wingra Stone & Redi-Mix, the construction company that owns the quarry, argues that there are no human remains in the mound and it should not be protected. The Ho-Chunk claim the effigy mound contains the remains of their ancestors.

“The site was a larger mound system and through the years it became a stone quarry,” said Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. “They removed the topsoil, then their valuable materials were subsurface so they took the shale.”

According to Quackenbush, the materials were likely sold for road projects.

In 2014, Wingra took the State Historical Society of Wisconsin to court over the issue. Last November the case was rejected and the next month, Wisconsin representatives introduced Assembly Bill 620 which allows landowners to “challenge the existence of human remains” in burial sites previously protected by state law. That means that private property owners could investigate sites using archeological excavation, ground-penetrating radar and other imaging technology. Critics say allowing individuals to excavate mounds could cause serious damage.

“If you destroy the mound to find remains, then what do you do?” said Henning Garvin. “You completely undermined the entire purpose of the excavation law and you’ve destroyed an ancient treasure.”

© Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
Ho-Chunk Nation representative David Greendeer holds materials pertaining to the preservation of the effigy mounds. © Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America

However, Wisconsin Rep. Robert Brooks, a co-sponsor of the bill, says the legislation would be good for private landowners and tribal nations.

“How do we protect significant historical and spiritual sites and how do we give a property owner sitting on stone or quarry or valuable front property or whatever that might be some sort of remedy to use the land?” Brooks said. “To me, it’s a pretty simple bill and we need to find balance on what some people consider burial sites and what some people consider spiritual.”

Robert Birmingham, a former state archeologist, a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of two books on effigy mounds says the issue is “really about respect for indigenous people, pure and simple.” While Birmingham admits that human remains have not been found in some mounds, he says those are exceptions to the rule.

“We shouldn’t use an anomaly to define legislation,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to go back and demonstrate every single one of these fits the pattern.”

Wingra Stone & Redi-Mix did not return requests for comment.

© Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
Native American tribal members crowded the “Forward” statue on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison on Jan. 12, 2016, to protest a bill that they say would endanger burial mounds. © Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
© Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America
A painting in the office of state Sen. Robert Cowles shows the French explorer Jean Nicolet first encountering native Americans. © Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America

The Ho-Chunk are not the only indigenous people waiting to learn the fate of their sacred lands. In Arizona, the San Carlos Apache don’t know about the future of Oak Flat — hallowed land that sits atop a massive copper deposit. In Hawaii, native islanders have so far successfully blocked the construction of a telescope on a revered mountain. And in Minnesota, the Anishinaabe continue fighting a crude oil pipeline that could destroy their traditional way of life.

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” said David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota and author of “American Indian Politics and the American Political System.” “What’s sacred to native peoples is only sometimes viewed as having any real sanctity to non-native people.”

In “The Landfall of Jean Nicolet,” the French explorer is not only firing two pistols into the air, he is doing so while wearing a Chinese robe, as he expected to find Asian people on his travels. Instead, he met Indians, and their descendants now sit in the state senator’s office, fighting to stop their history from being erased.

“This is from the Department of Army, it has to do with [Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)] and its reliability in determining human remains,” said Ho-Chunk lawyer Mike Rogowski, handing over a document. “This is from Arlington National Cemetery, and it says, with regards to interred caskets or urns, GPR is statistically unreliable and subject to wide interpretation.”

Smith, the chief of staff, nodded his head in agreement.

“We understand the private property issue really well, we’re one of the non-reservation tribes so we have to purchase everything,” added Greendeer. “But in this case, you’re destroying world history. Ancient history, and there’s so much to it.”

Everyone in the room agreed that the Ho-Chunk were in a strong position. Handshakes went around, and the tribal members were on to the next meeting. For the Ho-Chunk, it was their ninth lobbying event of the day, and they still had eight more to go before they could go home.

“This has to do, fundamentally, with how we treat other religious beliefs in this country,” Birmingham said. “It’s about respecting the traditions and the beliefs of indigenous peoples that persist to this very day.”

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tristan ahtone

Tristan Ahtone is an award winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona and raised across the United States, he was educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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