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Artifacts on the reservation

HAYWARD, Wis. – Jerry Smith walked among the huge piles of dirt mounds, supervising workers with shovels as a tribal elder approached him with a complaint about his work. Smith, tribal historic preservation officer, walked the elder out of the cordoned off area and engaged him in what appeared to be calm dialogue.

Then he came back, half-smiling, yet troubled by another disruption from a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles community.

“Some of these people are reacting just on impulse,” Smith said, referring to tribal members who have misjudged his work of protection of tribal historic artifacts.

Smith looked around the large mounds of dirt that had been piled by an excavator and worried out loud about the trouble that is brought to a tribal village like this, Odawasagaeguning, by the need for improved water lines.

“Every time you put in another water line on this reservation, you’re asking for trouble.”


Brian Bisonette, tribal council representative, pointed to the site of the water line excavation and archeological study of uncovered Native relics in the Ojibwe village of Odawasagaeguning as Jerry Smith, tribal historic preservation officer, held a report from a 1915 archeology study. The two stopped a community water line construction project to comply with NAGPRA regulations that aim to protect and preserve tribal historic artifacts.

Smith’s work involves the monitoring of public excavation projects on the reservation and the protection of historic Native remains or artifacts if they are inadvertently uncovered. Some tribal members get it mixed up with research that was once commonly conducted by anthropologists or archeologists on Native sites.

“Jerry Smith notified me on May 1 that they uncovered bone,” said Brian Bisonette, tribal council representative, as he explained how the elder Ojibwe spiritual leader had monitored the water line excavation project during its initial tunneling work in the ancient village.

“He anticipated problems; there are shallow graves all over the place, but Reserve (modern name for village) has a high probability,” Bisonette said. “Our policy is to halt the project when bone is discovered, and we don’t have an ordinance yet for a protocol, but we follow custom law.”

Once tribal police investigated the large bones uncovered at the water line excavation site and determined they were from a horse or cow nearly a century ago, the tribal council directed an examination of other items found in the soil. Local tribal volunteers and young people were hired to conduct the archeological work as the water line project was halted.

Shovels full of soil were poured into screen boxes and workers sifted the soil into new piles of dirt and sand. Each sifting revealed small treasures of historic items like aged pieces of glass, century old nails, bits of metal from a 19th century blacksmith shop and old trade items. Valuable pieces were brought to Bob Sander, a local tribal historian, and he set them in labeled boxes or baggies for further study.

Six years ago, an excavation project down the road from this site uncovered skeletal remains from a Native interment that reached back hundreds of years. The investigation caused political rumbling on the reservation from conservative tribal groups who demanded a reburial according to customs they learned from a variety of intertribal sources. The remains were reinterred following tribal ritual ways.

“Ever since that time, we’ve been criticized every time we examine excavation sites, just following the law,” Bisonette said.

The law is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, federal legislation that governs tribal consultation, archeological analysis, treatment of collections and re-interment of objects.

The village of Odawasagaeguning was described as “the crossroads of history” by an eminent Wisconsin historian. Its strategic forest location amidst a chain of major rivers and lakes was key to its continuous inhabitation over thousands of years by Native people.

“Road construction workers right here dug up 22 bodies about 100 years ago,” said Smith, citing a state archeology report in his hand, “and reburied them up there with the pagans, north of the St. Francis Catholic cemetery.”

Smith and Sander studied some items uncovered by two of the youth workers. Sander held up a shiny deer knuckle bone that had been etched with geometric designs. He described the old cup and needle game of skill, called Pepengunegun, which once occupied much of ancient Ojibwe Indians’ free time.

“Our history is important to us,” Sander said as he displayed the knuckle bone for the workers to see. “We have to uncover more of this before our history, or even this game, becomes lost.”

Sander held up two pieces of deer bone. One cut across like a sirloin steak, the other splintered. “What can we learn from the way these bones were used?”

He explained that the cut across bone was much more recently eaten while the other was shattered to obtain its marrow, which meant it was probably eaten more than 100 years ago.

Two youth workers, Rebecca Nickence and Thomas Smith, described the joy of discovery each time they sifted items. The Ojibwe teens explained that each layer of earth holds periods of history for the entire reservation. And Smith is teaching them that history. The teens now want careers in archeology and Native history.

“Some people drive by and harass our workers, calling them grave diggers,” said Smith, they have even been threatened.

“We’re working with a wounded veteran here every day,” he added, motioning toward a young worker, “and nobody wants to help him.”

With that, Smith slowly walked over to the boxes with rows of collected items and quietly discussed them with Sander. Soon they were deeply engaged in conversation as they pointed to the items.

Rick St. Germaine can be contacted at stgermaine