For the inaugural blog post, I am posting the notes I wrote for my guest appearance on the CRM Archaeology Podcast. Episode #91 “Stopping the Destruction of Wisconsin’s Mounds” which can be found here:
This blog was created out of my tendency to write overly long, wordy, impassioned, Facebook posts. The Facebook post I wrote after the first meeting of the Burial Sites Study Committee (more on this later), got me on that episode. At that time, the story of what has transpired here in Wisconsin had reached very few and I wanted to get the story out, I believed this podcast was the best opportunity. I just wanted to tell the story from the beginning to the present. Although I did not get in everything I wanted to say, that’s what a blog is for.
What is an Effigy Mound
In order to understand what the burial sites conflict is in Wisconsin, it is important to understand what an effigy mound is. Effigy mounds are constructed earthen mounds where the Woodland peoples would inter their dead. Effigy mounds are created in recognizable forms such as a deer, a bear, a bird, a fox, a lynx, along with other forms such as a man, and spirit creatures. There are also more abstract shapes such as domes (sometimes referred to as “turtles”) or linear embankments. Wisconsin has the most effigy mounds in the Midwest. Although effigy mounds range through the entire Midwest.
At the time of European contact, there was an estimated 25,000 – 35,000 effigy mounds. Over time it has been estimated that 90% of these mounds have been destroyed by either development, agriculture, or natural overgrowth. Effigy mounds are burial markers although they are multidimensional in their purpose; they are sacred spaces. Mounds were created by the Woodland peoples, ancestors of several Native American Tribes including the Ho-Chunk nation. Effigy mounds were constructed from 700BCE-1300CE. There was a blooming curiosity by scientists in Wisconsin very early on regarding these ancient earthworks and many scientists went out and surveyed mounds. Notably, scientists such as Increase Lapham and Charles E. Brown. It is through their efforts that we now have such good documentation of effigy mounds including mounds that have since been destroyed.
The History of the Ward Mound Group
At the heart of the AB620 issue in Wisconsin is the Ward Mound Group. These mounds are located at approximately 43°02’06.0″N 89°16’49.6″. These mounds are located within the Wingra Quarry on Marsh Road, just to the north of Mcfarland, Wisconsin in Blooming Grove, Wisconsin. Dr. W.G. McLachlan first surveyed the mound group in 1914. When it was first surveyed, the Ward group initially consisted of seven mounds but today, it consists of two effigies, a bird, and a partial fox. Wingra first purchased the property for quarrying in 1960. The five other mounds of the Ward Group were destroyed prior to Wingra’s purchase presumably through farming. Through the process of quarrying, the Ward mound group is located on a peninsula of land completely enclosed within the Wingra gravel quarry. No one has access to the Ward Mound Group.
Map of Ward Mound Group McLachlan 1914
The Ward Mound Group Today Google Maps
Wisconsin Act 316
Wisconsin Act 316 was a law created in 1985, enacted 1986. Legislature intends to assume that all human burials be accorded equal treatment and respect for human diversity, adequate protection for all interests related to any human burial site. This act created the burial sites committee and gave further duties to the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society. It gave the director of the WHS the duty to identify and catalog both known burial sites and probable burial sites. As explained, effigy mounds are burial sites. Therefore all effigy mounds are accorded the protection as a burial site. Regardless of the fact if the mound is a burial mound or not. All remaining mounds are cataloged as burial sites in order to protect them from further destruction. The Ward mound group was cataloged by the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1991.
Wingra Court Action
In 2010, Wingra approached the Wisconsin Historical Society to get the Ward mound group declassified as a burial site, which was denied. In 2014, Wingra tried to obtain a state permit to be allowed to excavate the site, to continue their quarrying activities. Wingra contends and questions whether or not the mounds on their property actually contain human remains. They do not believe the mounds contain burials and therefore they should be allowed to continue quarrying. Wingra wants proof that the mounds contain burials but, therein lies the fundamental problem. If archaeologists were to excavate the mounds in order to discover burials, they will destroy the mounds. Archaeology is a unique profession in that when we excavate a site, we destroy it. The ground is penetrated, artifacts and remains are systematically recovered and the site, whatever it is, is gone. The site loses its context. Effigy mounds are unique, multidimensional constructs, many have been lost and there are not any being made. An archaeological investigation will destroy a mound and no amount of repair would rebuild the mound as it was. Wingra states that their company will stand to lose $10-15 million dollars they cannot excavate. The judge denied their permit and Wingra was denied from declassifying the mounds from the burial sites catalog. Wingra sued to challenge both the decision to declassify the mounds as burial sites and the denial of the state permit.
The Judge stated:
“The director of the Wisconsin Historical Society properly rejected a request by Wingra to declassify a mound group. The director of the WHS interpreted the purpose of the law correctly to protect the places where human remains are buried or are likely to be buried. Wingra had opportunities to mitigate the impact of the law both before and at the time of the original decision to catalog the site in 1991 but, chose not to take advantage of those options. Wingra’s arguments now challenging the original catalog decision are untimely.”
AB620 was an attempt to amend the law to allow landowners to challenge the findings of the director of the WHS of a burial site on their property. This amendment was written by Wisconsin state senator Chris Kapenga and Wisconsin state representative Robert Brooks in 2015. The essential amendment was that there is no burial found on a property, then the landowner can continue use of their land. This led to a rally at the Wisconsin state capitol building by the Ho-Chunk on January 12, 2016. The proposed amendment never made it to the floor of the Wisconsin state senate. Therefore, AB 620 failed to pass pursuant to Senate joint resolution 1, which means that it failed to pass during the last floor period.Although it has been shelved for a later Senate meeting pending the findings of the Burial Sites Study Committee created to review and study the law.
Preservation of Burial Sites Study Committee
As of this writing, there have been two meetings of the Study Committee. The second of which will be reserved for another later blog post. During the first meeting, the issue of eminent domain was introduced. As part of Wisconsin Act 316, landowners who have cataloged burials such as effigy mounds on their property receive a tax break on their property tax. How can eminent domain be claimed by Wingra when they have not had their land taken from them? Although in this case, the amount of money to be made by quarrying far outweighs the tax break. Effigy mounds like the Ward group date from 700BCE-1300CE long before Wingra purchased the property. Rob Shea, president of Wingra believes that they are being prevented the use of their land by the WHS because they cannot excavate the land underneath the effigy mounds. Another issue discussed was the concern that Act 316 gives too much power to the director of the WHS as a non-elected official. Yet, the previous court finding has stated that the director of the WHS has acted within the law. The Director of the WHS has a special inspection warrant that allows the director to go on the property where suspected burials are. The badge is reserved for extenuating circumstances. The response from the director of the WHS himself was that this badge has been seldom used. A question Rob Shea asked of the WHS is if any other landowners have ever had an issue with burials on their property and challenged it like Wingra is. The answer was no. In fact, the direct quote was “No one has tried to do what you’re doing.”This quote goes to illustrate how well Act 316 has worked and how well landowners have responded to having a burial site on their property. Another proposal was to modify the law according to stages of decomposition but, such a proposal is problematic. Even if the remains would have degraded away completely, it would not change the fact that an effigy mound is a burial site. Another issue is the two designations that the WHS uses for burial sites: cataloged and uncataloged. Cataloged means a place where there definitely are burials. Uncataloged burials mean a place where there may be burials. The vernacular can be seen as confusing as effigy mounds could be placed under either category. Though effigy mounds were constructed first and foremost as burial markers and statistics of mounds that have been excavated indicate this use (more on this later).
2015 Assembly Bill 620. Wisconsin State Legislature.
1985 Wisconsin Act 316. Wisconsin State Legislature.
Effigy Moundbuilders – Effigy Mounds National Monument. National Park Service
Turning Points in Wisconsin History: Effigy Mounds Culture. Wisconsin State Historical Society
Preservation of Burial Sites Staff Brief. Wisconsin Legislative Council
Judge to Decide Whether Native Mound Group Can Be Disturbed. Ed Treleven. Wisconsin State Journal. March 28, 2014
Judge Denies Quarry’s Bid to Remove Protection for Mounds. Ed Treleven. Wisconsin State Journal. August 11, 2o14
New Bill Would Allow Excavation of Native American Burial Mounds. Jeff Glaze. Wisconsin State Journal. December 14, 2015
Proposed Legislation Endangers Effigy Mounds. A.J. Cloud. Hocak Worak.
What is the Difference Between a Catalogued vs. Uncataloged Burial Site. Wisconsin State Historical Society.
Human Burials, Mounds, and Cemeteries and State Law. Wisconsin State Historical Society.
What’s the Value of a Mound? A Current Dispute in Wisconsin. Andy White Anthropology.
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