In the woodlands of Wisconsin an effigy mound of a bird towers 50 feet above a sand and gravel quarry. At one time, there were seven mounds on the site, known as the Ward Mounds. There was also a canine effigy, and others of various shapes. Most have been destroyed, but the bird effigy remains intact.
The quarry beneath the bird effigy contains $10 million worth of sand and gravel. The quarry and the mounds are owned by Robert Shea of Wingra Redi-Mix, Inc. Shea has gone to court for his right to destroy the bird effigy to get to the gravel beneath.
The Ward Mounds, located in Dane County, have been called the “Heart of the homelands of the Ho-Chunk Nation,” by Ellsworth Brown, Wisconsin state archaeologist and director of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Brown described the area in Dane County as a sacred location.
The majority of effigy mounds are known to have been burial grounds, but that can be difficult to prove as remains decompose over time, and the mounds were built hundreds of years ago.
Effigy mounds in the Wisconsin area were built by the Ho-Chunk Nation as long as ago as 700 BC and as recently as 1300 AD. They were often created to represent the animals and birds, and were considered grave markers. Currently, there are approximately 3,200 effigy mounds in the state and over 9,000 mounds of other types. “We don’t know the exact amount there are, but many were destroyed as early as 1820 and [the] 30s,” said Kurt Sampson, director and curator of the Dodge County Historical Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “In Wisconsin, they did not pass a burial site protection law until 1985-86. The law protects all burials and historic cemeteries with Statute 157.7,” even those that are privately owned.
The burial protection act required that all of the effigy mounds, even those on private property, be catalogued by the Wisconsin Historical Society for preservation. Mounds not deemed as burial grounds were not catalogued. Private land owners had six years to contest the decision to catalogue mounds on their property.
For some reason, it took Shea 20 years to contest the cataloguing, 14 years after the statute of limitations had expired. Now Shea has filed a complaint with the courts in the hopes that the mounds on his property will be de-catalogued, so he can destroy them and quarry there.
Shea’s first step was to approach the Wisconsin State Historical Society to request the mounds be de-catalogued, as required by the act. Shea’s request was denied in part because the six-year statute of limitations to challenge the cataloguing had run out.
Shea then filed a complaint with the courts, stating that his due process had been denied, and that because it is his property, he should be able to do what he wants. Because it took him so long to bring his complaint forward, he is expected to face many challenges in court.
Had Shea contested that the mounds were burial grounds during the six-year period, he would have had the right to excavate the site, and to remove and analyze human remains or objects that were found. But he neglected to do that.
Now, he has gone to court, stating in his complaint that he had not been told about the 1986 law. Yet, Wisconsin Historical Society records show that Shea met with archaeologists who explained to him the process of cataloguing the mounds. After that, Shea denied the archaeologists any further access to his property, which was his right to do, but did not help his cause to have the mounds de-catalogued.
Because it took Shea 20 years, the only way he can now have the mounds de-catalogued is to provide new evidence that proves the mounds were not burial sites. He recently commissioned a survey of the mounds by an independent archaeologist. The survey report indicated that no human remains were found, but according to the Ho Chunk’s response to Shea’s court complaint and the Wisconsin State Archaeologist’s brief, the accuracy of the data and methods of Wingra’s survey were not reliable.
The survey did not take into account that human remains decompose. “The site is hundreds of years old and bound to deteriorate over time. To review the one piece of evidence that states no remains have been found would result in a biased opinion,” Rebecca Maki-Wallander, Ho-Chunk Nation Department of Justice Tribal Attorney, wrote in the Ho-Chunk’s response.
Those involved in the case have been told by the court not to discuss it, but Sampson agreed to offer his opinion, adding that his opinion does not reflect the Historical Society’s. Personally, he supports the Ho-Chunk position.
“Anybody that tries to challenge this law knows they are in for a long legal battle,” Sampson said. “This is a unique case, and personally I think it is a money grabbing attempt for profit and it is ridiculous. I would be stunned if there was an exception to this rule. If you make an exception, you open up the floodgate of people who would destroy the mounds for development, and I can’t see that happening.”
While the court’s decision may take years, Shea’s Wingra Redi-Mix has tried to circumvent the process by applying for a zoning permit to dig the quarry. While Shea believes he should be able to do what he wants with his private property, it has previously been determined by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that one’s personal agenda does not overrule zoning laws.
Describing the un-cataloguing of the site as unlikely, Assistant Attorney General Bruce Olsen told the Wisconsin State Journal, “Once it’s a burial site, it always is. Human remains are likely to decompose and I think the legislature recognized that. Once remains are buried, they continue to be buried.”
There are many parties in Wisconsin that hope Olsen is right. According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, over 80 percent of known pre-historic burial sites have been damaged or destroyed. The court’s decision will be an important one and could impact all of the mounds in Wisconsin on private property.