Published on Friday, November 10, 2000 © 2000 Madison Newspapers, Inc. Used with permission
Byline: John-Brian Paprock
“They are gates of spiritual protection against all enemies both human and otherwise,” says Steve Funmaker of the effigy mounds that are concentrated in south central Wisconsin. Funmaker, of the Ho Chunk Historic Preservation office, warns, “They should be left alone. They shouldn’t be dug into. They shouldn’t have picnic tables on them. The arrogance of some people - they don’t understand what they are and therefore just step on them like they don’t mean anything.”
A new book, due out mid-November 2000, will go a long way to help with understanding the history and the mystery of Wisconsin’s fantastic ancient monuments – the effigy mounds.
Robert Birmingham, Wisconsin State Archeologist, and Leslie Eisenberg, director of the Burial Site Preservation Office, have collated the scattered and often ubiquitous information and research into a much needed book from UW Press: “Indian Mounds of Wisconsin,” due out this November.
Not only does the book break ground in making a case for Native American continuity, but it also makes some sense of the wild history of the various alternative theories that have been presented since the 19th century. Birmingham explains, “It would be difficult to justify relieving people of their land if they had such a deep history and so there was an unwillingness to recognize that Native Americans had a deep history in this land. So, many were willing to believe otherwise.”
The remarkable earthworks have been attributed to peoples from Aztecs to Vikings, but Birmingham points out that two things have created a dramatic shift. “One is a change in attitude toward Native Americans by dominant culture in general, and secondly we now know something of the history of the land.”
“People are finding out that there’s more and more as we go along. They say ‘Wow, there were Native Americans here at one time!’ This is kind of news to them, but we always knew that,” said Funmaker. He is critical of books and all the sudden interest in the topic. Funmaker is not alone, but there are different views even among Native Americans.
At least three different tribes claim ownership of the mounds and ancestry to the mound builders. Perhaps, effigy mounds were part of an inter-tribal religious movement. Maybe they were even part of inter-tribal ceremonials that helped link people together. One thing is nearly unanimous; these are sacred and holy sites that need to be protected. As Funmaker puts it “Sacred all along, not brand new sacred.”
Birmingham writes in the book’s introduction that “sacred character of a place continues to recognized and shared over a long period of time, perhaps even by people from different cultural backgrounds.” People like Linda Maloney, effigy mound preservation advocate, understand this.
“I’m fourth generation Maloney in this area and my dad, raised Irish Catholic, was born at the end of Orchard Street in the 20s.” says Linda Maloney of Madison. “When I was a little girl, he took me to the mounds down by Vilas, the ones at the end of Orchard Street. He said, if you are feeling sad or lonely or afraid and you want to go someplace, this is where you can come to. You see how the bear will hold you and give you a great big hug. You can see how you can snuggle into the bird and you can stay there until you feel better again and then go home.”
“That was my first introduction to the mounds,” she said, “Over my life I would go there and feel better. Then I just became fascinated with them and I went on to work to preserve them with the Mound Committee in Monona. They are very highly spiritual places, ceremonial places that have to be protected – whether they were graves or season markers or clan markers or places of celebration or whatever, they needed to be protected.”
Birmingham made it very clear that all royalties from the book will go toward mound preservation.
Co-author Eisenberg, a forensic anthropologist, works to protect the mounds as part of her duties with the Burial Sites Preservation Program. She gets calls to check on mound sites several times a month - sometimes, to make a determination of authenticity effigy or burial mound; sometimes, to make sure the mounds are being properly protected. According to the Burial Site Protection Law of 1985, Wisconsin progressively defined all Native American mounds as human burial places. The law protects them from disturbance and destruction, as it does for all cemeteries and family plots. Eisenberg states that new mounds are being determined regularly and added to the over 9,000 burial sites already catalogued throughout the state.
Eisenberg has almost daily contact with tribal offices throughout the state where the tribe often sends someone to inspect the site. The Ho Chunk Nation has taken a lead role as the protector of the mounds. “There are ceremonies that are performed depending on how strongly we want to protect the mounds from encroachment,” explains Funmaker. He said that some of the elders have been going out to different mound sites on a case-by-case basis, sit in one spot and watch all the people come and go, “They won’t interfere, but they will watch and take mental notes. If it is someone they recognize they will put their names in memory and go back to the council and talk about it.”
“It is our strong opinion that mounds need to be to be understood in context with Native American societies and belief systems,” says Birmingham “We do have protection laws, but we believe that people become more respectful with education. The more people understand, the more respectful and honoring they become.”
“The important thing,” he said, “is that the mounds out there today were built by the ancestors of modern Native Americans and they reflect the belief systems and sometimes the social systems – certainly the broader cosmology of the people that made them and those sorts of beliefs haven’t changed.”
Unique in the world, the effigy mound clusters are most numerous in Dane County - so numerous that Madison has been called “Mound City.” In fact, of the 36 public sites listed in the book’s appendix, 17 of them are in Dane County (with 7 more in 4 adjacent counties).
Birmingham theorizes, “Southern Wisconsin has been some of the best environment in the Midwest for centuries. The resources must have been great. All the clusters of effigy mounds throughout the state have one thing in common - they tend to be in very very good resource rich areas.”
Birmingham continues, “The effigy mounds and other related sites truly reflect that this part of the country not only provided many resources, but also provided a very inspirational landscape – you can still see how inspiring it is. The mound locations are places where anyone could draw a great deal of inspiration and consider it special and holy. They’re great places to put effigy mounds because the landscape just evokes that kind of response. An effigy mound group was built to blend into the landscape not stand out from it.”
“For the mounds to last as long as they have, there must have been a lot of cooperation. For them to be built here, this had to be a very peaceful place,” Maloney adds.
It will not ruin the many insights and stories of the book to give away the book’s last paragraph:
“For Native Americans, the mounds are eternally sacred places, the graves of ancestors, that connect them to the land and the supernatural. But the mounds have also become highly visible and powerful symbols of the persistence into the modern era of uniquely Native American values and beliefs. Indeed, when thunder and lightning move across the Wisconsin skies and water roils in the lakes and streams, there are still some who know that thunderbirds and water spirits are about their ancient struggle, which brings harmony to an unsettled world.”