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Desecration Row: Wisconsin Bill Threatens All Native Burial Mound Sites

A bill proposed in Wisconsin is causing friction between legislators and Native nations, who recently held a rally against AB 620.

A new conflict between Native Americans in Wisconsin and state Republicans has emphasized the friction between the two groups since Republicans recaptured control of the state legislature under the tenure of Gov. Scott Walker. In the latest fracas, the Ho-Chunk and other Native tribes in Wisconsin are lobbying against Assembly Bill 620, which aims to rollback current state law protections for Native American burial mound sites. This bill follows a pattern under Walker, who signed iron ore mining law changes in 2013 that threatened the traditional territory of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. That same year Walker also signed a rollback of the progressive Indian mascot bill that former governor Tommy Thompson had signed.

State Republicans have exposed an extreme level of ignorance in crafting AB 620, which would require desecration of burial mounds and other graves in order to verify their categorization by finding human remains. Only then would the sites receive state law protection as burials.

Courtesy YouTube/Sherri Jones

This image, from a video produced by Sherri Jones, shows the rally held to protect the mounds on January 12 at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

In contrast, Wisconsin tribes, especially the Ho-Chunk, acknowledge that the ancestral burial mounds here were designed through a supreme intelligence of a culture popularly known as the Mound Builders. The Ho-Chunk, descendants of the Mound Builders, consider any disturbance of ancestral burial mounds an affront to their way of life and a threat to knowledge that future generations will need to ensure the health of the planet.

RELATED: Desecration of Graves Sanctioned by Wisconsin Assembly Bill

Although Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) announced AB 620 would likely not move this spring, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Ho-Chunk Nation is preparing for a fight.

“We slowed down the legislation but if there is anything we have learned in speaking with a lot of the legislature, education seems to be a key. People lack basic information, and there is misinformation, so we have to continue our educating and advocating and get stronger legislation into place,” said Henning Garvin, Ho-Chunk Nation District 1 Representative. Garvin represents the district where Wingra Stone wants to tear into two currently state-protected effigy mounds in one of their quarries.

Courtesy Ho-Chunk Nation

Ho-Chunk District Representatives Henning Garvin, Andrea Estebo and David Greendeer at the rally to protect the mounds on January 12.

That education began in full force when Native America Calling interviewed David Greendeer, District 2 Representative for the Ho-Chunk Nation, on January 21. He spoke about the difficulty in sharing unwritten tribal knowledge and talking about the topic of death in order to inform legislators and other members of the public. To do so, he has had to consult very carefully with Ho-Chunk Elders and attorneys.

Greendeer is the third generation of his family to take up protecting the mounds. He traveled with his grandfather to many sites, including those in Iowa and Missouri, and attended his first large gatherings of Elders and historians at the age of 8. So when he delivered a poem to hundreds of marchers at the Ho-Chunk rally to protect the mounds in the state capitol of Madison, the passion that flowed in the subzero weather on January 12 was a culmination of this generational responsibility.

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“Some of these mounds are not ours, they were put here,” he told Native America Calling. “I don’t have to reiterate anything at this point in terms of the bill. If these things are destroyed, we are going to lose our connection to our traditional ecological knowledge. We have an opportunity to teach the world about how significant these places are.”

Greendeer shared that the mounds show aspects of quantum physics and mechanics, and of astrological alignments that indicate a language that has been lost. “We can’t comprehend the loss,” he said.

Greendeer’s grandfather was instrumental in passing Wisconsin’s burial mound protection law in 1986, which Republicans now seek to gut. Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) withdrew her sponsorship of the bill January 6. Greendeer said this was a result of her learning the issues. The remaining state bill co-authors Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) and Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) have neither cooperated fully with the press nor demonstrated any in-depth knowledge in their public comments, however, and both declined to be guests on Native America Calling. Rep. Czaja also did not respond to Indian Country Today Media Network’s request for an interview. Also interviewed was Boye Ladd (Ho-Chunk/Zuni), a champion pow-wow dancer, storyteller and traditionalist, who teaches dance, traditions and Native culture to numerous groups from young children to politicians, and Native to non-Native. He pointed out the spirit of cooperation that existed in Wisconsin in the 1970s between tribes and state government agencies. He also reiterated Greendeer’s statements about the Ho-Chunk unwritten history being holy. He did point out, however, the need for preserving the knowledge of past cultures for future generations, using the example of climate change. He noted the disparities in temperatures between the extreme cold in the Southwest and the unusually temperate December weather at the North Pole show that climate change is real. Future generations will need the advanced knowledge of the past to face these types of problems.

Courtesy Ho-Chunk Nation

Ho-Chunk Nation Traditional Chief Clayton Winneshiek dancing as a drum group passes at the rally to protect the mounds on January 12.

The January 12 rally for the Ho-Chunk was a kick-off to another round of educating and connecting and may have drummed up some sensitivity in other parts of the Midwest. The Columbus Dispatch is now reporting that Ohio’s laws lack protection of burial sites from “scavengers.” Two men sentenced under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act for trafficking 4,000-year-old human remains are expected to receive just three years probation. They dug up the skeletons of two women and six children. Ohio does not protect abandoned cemeteries or those on private land, or unmarked burials older than 125 years.

Indiana law provides heavy fines and felony charges for some acts, and protects Native American burial sites dating before December 31, 1870, the Dispatch reports. This law emanated from public outrage over a looting of hundreds of graves on the GE Mound. The corporation knowingly used dirt from the mound as landfill for a new reception center. Analysis showed the mound was one of the most important Hopewell sites ever discovered.

Louisiana’s Poverty Point was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. Its earthworks were built 3,100 to 3,700 years ago, according to the National Park Service.

Effigy mounds proliferate in the state of Wisconsin. They represent animals and spirits, including water spirits. Mounds represent air, earth and water animals. They are a part of life in the state, where proper respect has been paid to them for over 30 years.

“Sometimes we get tied up and we only look at our own tribes,” said Greendeer. “I think the thing that has made us happy is that we are uniting. We have reached out to all the agencies and the majority have stepped forth to help us.”