Photo by Morgan Winston
Native American landmarks brought to the surface by preservation efforts
Walking up the cement path of Bascom Hill, students may not know they are stepping over remnants of Native American life.
The effigy mounds were buried there centuries ago, as well as in several other locations around UW-Madison’s campus. Only recently have markers surfaced and education about UW-Madison’s Native American history gained prominence.
Daniel Einstein, historical and cultural manager at UW-Madison, gave The Daily Cardinal staff members a tour of some of these landmarks.
Before UW-Madison was founded in 1848, the land was occupied by the Ho-Chunk tribe. Today one of the only pieces of evidence that remains is the effigy mounds, which are sacred burial sites in the shape of animals and water spirits. Einstein said the Madison region used to shelter 20,000 burial mounds, but ever since the European settlement in the late 1700s 80 percent of them have been excavated.
Einstein explained that since the construction of UW-Madison, the school has damaged or built over several effigy mounds. Bascom Hall, as well as Agriculture Hall, Kronshage Hall and North Hall, sit on top of where Native American remains once lay. Einstein said in the 1940s a few mounds were dug up and disrupted in order for archaeologists to learn about the campus’s history and uncover early artifacts.
There are more burial mounds on the UW–Madison campus than any other campus nationwide, according to Amy Rosebrough, a Wisconsin assistant state archaeologist, and there are certainly more effigy mounds. She said UW-Madison’s campus is the only college campus in the world where people created large structures in the shape of animals for burial.
The buildings were erected before Wisconsin State Statute 157.70 was implemented. The law protects burial sites in a mapped buffer zone throughout the entire state. Gary Brown, director of campus planning and landscape architecture at UW-Madison, said this construction occurred when mound history and importance was less understood.
Einstein said it wasn’t until the mid-1920s when Charles E. Brown, then the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum, advocated for the mounds. Einstein said preservation of the mounds recognizes “important, unique stories of our past.”
In the early 1900s, interpretive markers were placed at effigy mounds around campus to recognize their significance and for visitors to learn about the mounds. According to Brown, there are no records that explain who exactly built these plaques.
But Brown said some of the information on these plaques was incorrect.The plaques were installed onto concrete posts that were placed into the mounds themselves, which disrupted their preservation. Over the last century, these plaques have become cracked, some to the point where they are irreparable, and have been removed from their original spots. They’re now on display at UW Archives in Steenbock Library.
Einstein explained there are many questions surrounding how the university and nations themselves should tell the stories of the tribal past and what point of view should be shown to help articulate the information justly.
“Many people aligned with Native nations are reluctant to share information. In the past, that information was used in ways that were unfair, unsympathetic and untrue,” Einstein said.
In addition to the effigy mounds, University Housing constructed a a fire circle outside Dejope Residence Hall in 2012. On the interior side of the wall are seals of the 12 tribes who live in Wisconsin.
Dejope is the only residence hall to have tributes to Native life within the building. Etchings of campus effigy mounds are carved in the lobby floor, informative signs are situated on walls and Four Lakes dining hall is also lined with Native decor, including a birchbark canoe. According to Gary Brown, the construction of the residence hall purposefully implemented the floor etchings as a way to support the Native tribes throughout Wisconsin. Its name, Dejope, means “four lakes” in the Ho-Chunk language.
Wisconsin Senate later passed Act 31, to preserve the recognition of the effigy mounds, in addition to requiring instruction of Indian culture and tribal sovereignty in all public schools. Einstein and other archaeological experts at the university now offer effigy mound group tours for grade school students as an opportunity to further their education on the topic.
Just a few yards west of UW-Madison’s Natatorium lies a collection of four effigy mounds. The mounds are several feet long, taking about two minutes to walk the perimeter in the snow. Einstein noted although the mounds are rather large, the quantity of bodies underground are unknown — meaning it could be just one or several together.
These effigy mounds represent more than burial sites. The shapes of the mounds are symbols for a specific clan — like the Ho-Chunk — or religious belief. The Native American Center and the City of Madison presume, according to their effigy mound pamphlet, the mounds were also “for the purpose of conducting a variety of social, religious, political, and economical activities.” These practices helped the tribes find unity with the civilians as well as the surrounding nature.
The vegetation surrounding Native American landmarks is constructed to match what the land would have looked like when Native Americans buried tribe members there.
Einstein hopes to enhance education of Native history by working with Brown and others to insert more accurate and descriptive plaques that explain controversial interactions between Native tribes and the university. He said they will represent a real acknowledgement and commitment to this relationship. Brown said details for the plaques are still being finalized and could not disclose price or locations.
“We have been working more recently on correctly interpreting the mounds based on new information and a renewed awareness of the importance of the mounds to the Native American people,” Brown said. “In creating new signage, we also recognize the importance of diversity on our campus and help each other learn from our past to help shape our future.”
The Lakeshore Nature Preserve organization says they continue to strive to maintain the historical artifacts that embody the essence of the UW-Madison campus. The preserve has a protection permit around the mound zones for teaching and research purposes.
He said he is optimistic for the future progress of Native American landmark preservation specifically at UW-Madison since advocates prioritize the need to share these historical stories.
“We’re making progress,” Einstein said. “We’re really seeing ways to share this story.”