Recently my wife, Nancy, and I visited the Effigy Mounds National Monument in the northeast corner of Iowa beside the Mississippi River. Driving to reach the Effigy Mounds we were struck by the numerous Native American names for towns, rivers, and parks, in a state named after the Ioway tribe decimated and disenfranchised by white settlers.
Of the Native America Heritage Sites in twenty-five national parks only three are in the Midwest. The other two are the Hopewell Cultural National Historical Park in Ohio and the Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota. The word Ohio comes from the Seneca-Iroquoian word meaning “good river” and the word Minnesota is the English spelling of the Dakota-Sioux word “Mnisota” for what we now call the Mississippi* River.
Might we widen our compassion for these peoples who for thousands of years lived in greater harmony with the Earth than we do?
At the end of this essay is a map of the burial mounds in the Midwest at the end of the nineteenth century. I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan,* which on this map is encircled by burial mounds that did not exist when I was a child in the 1940s. These sacred sites for Native Americans were destroyed by the settlers who cut down the forests, plowed the fields, and drove the native peoples from their homeland.
In her 2016 book The Hour of Land: A Personal Typography of America’s National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams reports that twenty tribes “who recognize the Effigy Mounds National Monument as a sacred site for their people” supported a 2000 audit that concluded park administrators: “had an inexcusable lack of understanding of the fundamental importance of the archaeological resource they were assigned to protect,” which led them “to discount concerns and justify gross physical and ethical violations of a site held sacred by many.”
Many of the effigy mounds have the shape of bears and birds. After walking around the largest bear mound, Williams asserts: “These bear mounds were reimagined in place through a collective belief and need. I do not know why they were sculpted into being, but their power is palpable.” The bears and birds “written on the body of the Earth through the hands of the humans who dwelled here in the Upper Mississippi River Valley are a reminder that we form the future by being caretakers of our past.”
Williams also walked silently, again and again, around a bird effigy mound with a wingspan of more than 200 feet. “Great bird above the Great River,” she asks, “what would you have us know?”
Do these suppressed sacred places and peoples challenge us to make new eco-choices?
*Mississippi is the Native American name for the lower Mississippi Delta that was home for over a dozen tribes. The word Kalamazoo reflects one or more Native American words referring to the Kalamazoo River.