“Drilling down into this mound would be like drilling into a marked grave in order to check to see if someone was actually buried there,” according to William Brown of the Lakota and Muskogee tribes.
“These mounds are our headstones!” he declares.
Brown and others in Racine, Wisconsin are protesting the city’s recent move to conduct soil-boring sampling on a site that they claim is a Native burial mound.
According to Brown, many people in the community, Native and non-Native are opposed to any physical disturbance of the site.
Although the Wisconsin State Historical Society had granted permission for boring testing on the mound that is located in the city’s Mound Cemetery, scientists opted to stop the procedure on October 4 when confronted by several people protesting invasive testing.
According to the JournalTimes.com, a scientific team led by University of Wisconsin archaeologist Tom Zych was scheduled to conduct boring testing on the location. After discussions with his boss, however, Zych decided to stop the testing.
“Legally we are permitted to do it, but we are going to discuss things with the state to make sure there aren’t any other steps we should be following,” Zych told the Journal Times.
“Our recommendation was for them to pack up and go back to the office,” according to John Broihahn, Wisconsin State archaeologist. His office had issued the testing permit.
“Everyone in the local community needs to be in agreement before we go forward with any testing,” he said.
For now, testing is on hold.
The back-story about the humble mounds growth to prominence describes a community dispute between the haves and have-nots, Natives and non-Natives in this Wisconsin community.
In August, the Meredith family, owners of the local Maresh-Meredith and Acklam Funeral home presented the Racine Board of Cemetery Commissioners with a proposal to purchase the parcel of land containing the mound in the Mound Cemetery. The Merediths wanted the land for a family burial site. The Commissioners turned down their offer of $19,000.00, saying that the land had never been intended for use as a burial site. In response, the family took their request to the Racine City Council. The council voted 7-7 regarding the sale of the land to the Meredith family. Mayor Tom Dickert cast the deciding vote in favor of the sale. Brown and other citizens accuse the mayor of playing favorites towards a family Brown describes as powerful and prideful.
“The vote itself was quite a circus. The mayor swayed the vote,”says Brown.
Dickert, however, in an interview with a Milwaukee television station, TMJ4,
describes the controversy as a case of sour grapes generated by the Cemetery Commissioners who are piqued that the City Council reversed their decision not to sell the land.
Dickert told CBS channel 58 that the Mound Cemetery is over $40,000.00 in debt. He noted that the $19,000.00 from the sale of the land to the Meredith family would go a long way in reducing that debt.
Mound Cemetery Supervisor Steve Bedard, however argues that if profit is the main goal, the value of the land is actually far greater. He told Channel 58 that the area is worth $300,000.00. Dickert disputes the figure.
If the land is going to be sold, Bedard wants the entire Racine community to have the opportunity to purchase plots. He told Channel 58 T.V. that he is trying to get a fair shake for all Racine residents, not just one family.
Dickert points out that the burial mound is undocumented in any available historical maps or documents and therefore by Wisconsin state law is not considered to be a protected site. Broihahn of the State Historical Society agrees that although the area is known to be the home of many Native burial mounds, the location in question is not clearly documented as a burial mound. Brown and others opposing either sale or disturbance of the site disagree and point to an 1850 map by J.A. Lapham and P.R. Hoy who documented many burial mounds in the area.
Joe Meredith said that his family wants the land for a private family burial site. The area would accommodate 16 graves. “The last thing we want to do is desecrate any land. Afterall, that is our business,” Meredith noted. He insists that if the area is indeed a burial mound, his family will back away from the sale.
Meredith claims that there was no mention of the area being a Native burial mound until his family took the matter up with the city council. During early discussions regarding sale of the land, Cemetery Commissioners referred to the area as a hitching post for horses according to Meredith.
He also points to the lack of historical documentation and has called for boring testing to be conducted at the family’s expense in order to determine the contents of the mound. He doesn’t’ understand why local Native people are opposed to boring into the site. He notes that non-invasive testing such as Ground Penetrating Radar is not considered to be conclusive in such cases. Broihahn agrees.
“Tribes do boring testing all the time. I would think they would want to know definitively whether this is a burial site or not,” Meredith noted.
Boring or digging, however, is not the preferred method of documenting Native burial sites according to Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ho-Chunk tribe. The Ho-Chunk reservation is located in central Wisconsin, not far from Racine. “Most tribes formally oppose soil testing. We don’t condone the disturbance of burial sites,” Quackenbush said. If there is a question about a burial site, the tribe will sometimes use Ground Penetrating Radar he noted.
Brown and other opponents claim that boring testing may not be conclusive either.
Brown has helped organize community members opposed to invasive testing and sale of the mound, staging a rally earlier this month at the cemetery to call attention to the issue. Community members have formed an organization called Ogichidaa Mawansomag (Warriors Gathering People Together) and are offering to establish a non-profit organization overseeing the mound and creating an annual Native cultural event as a fundraiser for the cemetery with all profits going directly to the City of Racine. So far, City of Racine officials have not responded to the written proposal according to Brown.
“The city still wants to go forward with the sale unless boring testing shows that the site is a Native burial mound,” according to David Armstrong, director of the Indian Law Office of Wisconsin Judicare, Inc. The organization is a non-profit dedicated to providing equal access to justice for Northern Wisconsin residents.
Members of Ogichidaa Mawansomag are prepared to file an injunction in state court to stop both the sale and any invasive testing according to Armstrong. He explained that Wisconsin state law allows any interested party to seek an injunction to stop the disturbance of a site in question. Additionally he noted that Municipal cemeteries must gain permission from the Wisconsin State Historical Society to sell any of their land. Part of the permission process allows organized groups concerned about Native burial sites to publically present their side of the story in such cases. Ogichidaa Mawansomag is currently undergoing state recognition as such a group.
“We are on the City Council agenda for tomorrow night’s meeting,” according to Brown who hopes that many opponents to the sale of the mound will attend.
“If they don’t agree to stand down, we will go forward with our injunction,” he said.
City of Racine officials did not respond to phone calls about the sale.