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This week on Minnesota Native News: We hear about the Minnesota Historical Society’s decision to keep a historic native burial site in northern Minnesota closed to the general public, and how tribes are working together to protect the site. Here’s reporter Cole Premo.
Far up in extreme northern Minnesota, at the US-Canada border near International Falls, lies a site of cultural and historical importance.
Let’s paint a picture of sorts...
[Sounds of wind/trees]
Along the Rainy River, there’s this grouping of native history called the Grand Mound Historic Site. It’s comprised of five sacred burial mounds, ancient villages and sturgeon fishing sites that were developed over 2,000 years ago.
The mounds stretch from west to east along the river. One of the mounds is a bit further inland than the other four mounds. This is the Grand Mound.
Rising out of the brush and trees at about 25 feet high and 140 feet long, Grand Mound is the largest Native American earthwork in Minnesota, as well as the largest surviving prehistoric structure in the upper midwest and the only effigy mound of this type in Minnesota.
It’s an area where native peoples gathered and fished for more than a millennia.
MATTIE: “These mounds were sites that were active in the springtime during the, the time when the sturgeon would spawn. And so native people would gather there, um, you know, during the spring and a village in a village, sites would, would pop up and they would have big feasts. but you know, as happens when, when native people get together, there'd be other things, right?”
That’s Dr. Mattie Harper. She’s the Program and Outreach Manager of the American Indian Initiatives team at the Minnesota Historical Society. She’s also Ojibwe and a citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota.
MATTIE: “People often did secondary burials there, so maybe they would be out in the winter and smaller camps in a relative might die and they, they could put their remains. I'm usually on it like a scaffold. And then they would just bring certain parts of the body or the bone back to the village site.”
The fact that there are only parts of many of the deceased at the mound, means it’s difficult to pinpoint a figure of exactly how many are there. However, based on excavations of other mounds, they have an idea.
MATTIE: “There's not a certain count because archaeologists haven't excavated grand mound, which is a good thing to see how many people are represented there. But um, you know, it's estimated it could be up to 5,000 individuals.”
Dr. Mattie Harper says based on different forms of research -- like archeology, linguistic research and oral history -- it’s believed that Dakota, Ojibwe, Blackfeet, Cree and the A’a- ni-nin tribes have descendants of those buried at the site.
And that brings us to the news at hand.
The Minnesota Historical Society has owned Grand Mound Historic Site since 1970 and opened a visitor center in 1976. It was operated as publicly accessible histo ric site until budget cuts forced its closure in 2002. Since then, the site became an official National Historic Landmark in 2011.
But questions have remained: should the historical site be reopened to the public? Or should it remain closed, and be transferred to native control?
With the sacred site on track to possibly reopen in 2018, Dr. Mattie Harper -- along with Joe Horse Capture and Kate Beane -- worked and met with tribes for mon ths to answer these questions.
MATTIE: “It was just the overwhelming opinion of native people that the site should be closed to the general public, you know, that it wouldn't, they wouldn't be comfortable, would it be appropriate to have people sort of traipsing around and viewing it like a tourist site.”
Harper says that, during the process, the biggest challenge was building trust between tribes and the Minnesota Historical Society.
MATTIE: “MNHS has had a long and trouble relationship and history with native communities in the state. And so that is still evident when I go out and try to work with communities…. there have been a lot of times in the past or you know, MNHS hasn't really taken into account what native people feel and think.”
However, these meetings with tribes seemed to have struck a chord with MNHS leadership and the decision was made in late October to keep the site closed to the general public with the exception of Native Americans.
Harper says it’s a huge win for natives considering the fact that MNHS had a lot of political pressure from non-native communities to reopen the site.
MATTIE: “So this was really a big victory, I feel like for native Americans. It's kind of a signal of how MNHS as an institution is shifting to like sort of shifted priorities because by, by making this decision to close the site to the general public and keep it open for native Americans, it's really signaling that the institution is listening to native communities.”
Harper said she’s been pleased to see how well tribes are working together on this issue, despite differing cultural opinions.
MATTIE: “Ojibwe and Dakota people have been working really well together and have expressed a mutual and shared interest.”
No decision has been made on the site’s immediate future, but the Minnesota Historical Society says it’s working on a quote “long-range plan that could include a the possible transfer of the site to a Native American tribe or tribes.”
MATTIE: “In the interim, which could be one to five years, um, we have to figure out how to manage it appropriately and so that is to keep it close to the general public, but we also are going to provide educational materials and interpretation and in some places.”
I’m Cole Premo.