BELOIT — A new wave of Beloit College students are actively working to help raise awareness of the indigenous burial mounds that span the college’s central campus, while recognizing past mistreatment of the sacred ground and native peoples.
The mounds are estimated to have been built between 500 BC and 1200 AD. Around 20 of the 27 mounds remain on campus, some of which were excavated or built over as the campus grew. According to Wisconsin State Archaeologist Robert Birmingham, 80% of mounds have been destroyed in Wisconsin.
The mounds were built by indigenous people that are believed to be the descendants of the Ho-Chunk Nation.
The tribe has long referred to Beloit as “Kechunk” that means Turtle Village. Ho-Chunk tribal member Samantha Skenandore, who served as a Ho-Chunk archivist prior to attending law school, took on a project to fully document the tribe’s long-standing presence in the Rock River Valley, with an emphasis on Beloit.
Skenandore said Beloit College contacted the tribe for further background on the mounds and to identify best practices in caring for the mounds.
She said that researchers and scholars continue to seek out the “mystery” behind mound culture.
“Since I was a little girl, I was counseled by my elders to not share certain things about our culture, because to do so came at a great risk,” Skenandore said. “The lesson was that if you share our most sacred knowledge, someone can then destroy it. This is very similar to modern legal concepts involving proprietary rights. Yet it is hard to hide an earthen structure that spans more than a hundred feet and even more difficult to hide a grouping of the same. Ho-Chunks have endured generations of efforts to expose the cultural meanings of the mounds generally and specific to certain mound groups. It seems that the Nation continues to observe an unwritten rule to decline the opportunity to share.”
Nonetheless, Skenandore said the Ho-Chunk Nation “has been largely successful in protecting that knowledge from likely desecration.”
To further understanding of the mounds, Skenandore said the tribe looks to work closely with school districts and local governments to share the history of the Nation. A key aspect of preservation for the Nation comes by way of assisting land owners with best practices for mound preservation and maintenance of mound sites.
But challenges remain, Skenandore said, citing the broad geographical footprint of the mounds across the Midwest and complications due to sites being owned by private land owners.
“These realities certainly bring many challenges and the Nation is known to help property owners adopt custom maintenance plans and best practices,” Skenandore said. “The Nation has worked closely with the Wisconsin State Archaeologist and the Burial Sites Preservation Office to enforce the Wisconsin law on burial sites preservation.”
Mounds are expressly included and protected under Wisconsin law.
Archaeological excavation and campus development on and near the mounds stopped in the 1970s as burial protection laws and cultural sensibilities changed, according to Associate Professor in the Department of Archeology Shannon Fie.
“The mounds continue to be sacred. Whether they’ve been dug or if people continue to visit them,” Fie said. “They continue to be sacred parts of the landscape that didn’t end. We tend to think about death and burials differently so the native communities still recognize this as a sacred spot. These communities are very much a part of Wisconsin and I think it’s important to continue to respect them as members of our community.”
Beloit’s mound group once contained 27 mounds in three main shapes: 19 were circular or oval, six were linear, and 2 were effigy mounds. Only one other mound group in Rock County contained as many, and it was located at the confluence of the Yahara and Rock Rivers, in the northern part of the county. Similarly, the setting of the Beloit College mounds on a bluff overlooking both the Rock River and Turtle Creek after the Yahara, the second-largest tributary stream in the county and likely reflects the builders’ preference for situating mounds close to travel routes, flowing water, natural landmarks, and ecologically diverse locations, according to “On Hallowed Ground” by Director Emeritus of the Logan Museum of Anthropology Bill Green.
Now, even adding things like electrical wires underground from a campus building to a light fixture along a walking path requires input and approval from the Ho-Chunk Nation, one of the tribes with direct descendants of the mound builders, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Tribal Affairs Office and Wisconsin Historical Society.
“I would say in the last five years we’ve seen a much greater awareness of minority representation and treatment of minorities and that has come through things like our Critical Identities Studies and efforts to diversify faculty and staff,” Fie said. “Part of the orientation is to take a decolonizing approach and look at the ways marginalized people have been harmed in the past and ways in which we can support the goals of indigenous people.”
For the last 18 years, Fie has taught students about the mounds, indigenous history and cultural mistreatment by White colonizers. One of the ways Fie looks to educate students is through a practical physical assessment of the campus mounds as part of “Archeology: Lessons From The Past” class, an introductory course at the college. Students are required to find all existing mounds and catalog human-caused physical damage or natural damage. What Fie doesn’t tell students is that some of the mounds are not intact.
“I could tell them about the destruction of the mounds but having them stand on a spot has an impact,” Fie said. “Having them look for it and realize that it’s gone because of a sidewalk, that has much more of an impact.”
Beloit College Sophomore Paige Clark said it was important that students and the greater Beloit community be aware of the sacred nature of the mounds.
“The main thing is cultural preservation because native peoples have been disrespected throughout us history and it’s about time that we actively go into the history of specific tribes and not making it about the past. They are currently here. We want to make the history tangible,” Clark said.
Student involvement in preservation of the mounds has seen a resurgence in recent years with the founding of the Campus Mound Sustainability and Advocacy Initiative, a student-led group focused on raising awareness about the mounds to faculty, staff and the student body. The group has worked with the admissions office to offer special training to campus tour guides regarding the mounds, along with funding an information campaign about the mounds.
Elaina Heaton, a Beloit College junior, is a founding member of the club. She came to campus and, like most students, was not really sure what the mounds were.
“It was not until Shannon’s archaeology class that I was actually introduced to them as burial mounds as she puts them into her lesson plan as she is aware that many students like me, are not aware of the mounds or have misinformation about them. Most students outside of the anthropology department are unaware of the mounds or have very limited or misinformation about them,” Heaton said.
Fie said she urged students to form CMSAI as a way to focus all the energy students had in wanting to protect the mounds.
“We are residing on their land (Ho-Chunk, Sac and Fox, and Potawatomi) and so I think like many people, I want to pay my respects and help out anyway I can,” Heaton said. “I can’t erase the years and years of disrespect the mounds and those who claim association to this land have faced because of the location of this campus but raising awareness, preserving them, and learning more about their culture I think is a small step I can take in order to do so. I think I am like many students on this campus. They want to help out and learn more but don’t know how, so when Shannon approached me about the club and gave me a platform to do so I wanted to be involved.”
The group works in conjunction with the Allies of Native Nations Committee, a subgroup of the Diversity Action Team of Rock County to create a platform from which they can help highlight issues in native communities and provide educational opportunities.
Through the efforts of the combined groups, they led the effort to recognize Oct. 12 as Indigenous People’s Day in Beloit and were part of the broader effort that saw Gov. Tony Evers recognize the holiday in October of 2019.
In March, nine CMSAI members went on a spring break trip funded by the college to many places along with Mississippi Rive from Missouri to Iowa. When they got back to campus, the COVID-19 pandemic had completely changed campus life, Heaton said.
“So after everyone left campus, the club concluded for the semester,” Heaton said. “ I am hoping to resume activity this semester and have already received interest from students.”
Heaton said she hopes to continue to grow the club’s membership and expand activities all under COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“I would like to make it more accessible and have more students trained to give it,” Heaton said. “This would mean anyone from inside or outside the Beloit college community could get a more in depth understanding of the mounds on our campus. Finally, I would like to just educate the campus on what they want to know.”
Skenandore said she believes attitudes in the U.S. are changing to be more culturally aware.
“I’d like to believe that we live in a time where we as an American society are pivoting from a culture value system that clings to the problematic colonial domination story,” she said. “More than ever, we seem to be embracing diversity and inclusion in our daily lives—that people from all cultures walk this planet together in shared spaces.”