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MADISON, Wis. — Hundreds of people flocked to the capital of Wisconsin yesterday, braving sub-zero windchill temperatures to express their displeasure with a bill that would put Native American burial mounds — and any natural burial, they say — at risk of desecration. The protesters, estimated to be in the hundreds, included members of the Ho-Chunk Nation and Circle Sanctuary. In the end, they received welcome news when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters that the bill won’t be coming to a vote this session.

Procession around the state capital [Selena Fox]

Procession around the state capital [Photo Credit: S. Fox]

The protesters were flanked by an honor guard of Native American military veterans. They listened to speakers in the frigid temperatures for an hour before processing around. Then they entered the capital rotunda where their words could be more easily heard by state legislators.

Robert Birmingham, a former Wisconsin state archaeologist and expert on the mounds which dot the Wisconsin landscape, explained how changes to the law could imperil the structures, which are formed in the shape of people and animals. “The current law presumes that the mounds are burial mounds based on a great deal of scholarship,” he said. From the mounds that were excavated “long ago,” Birmingham said that 90% yielded human remains. “The law does not prohibit disturbance” under certain circumstances such as building a highway, but “there is a process.”

That process apparently doesn’t sit well with the executives of Wingra Stone, whose sand and gravel mining operations are impeded by the presence of one such mound. Their efforts to obtain permission to dig through it have been stymied in court. That is why the company has backed legislation that would require the Wisconsin Historical Society to issue permits so that property owners could, at their own expense, dig into a mound to determine if there are actually human remains inside.

According to reporting by WRN:

The bill (AB-620), from state Representative Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) would allow property owners to challenge whether human remains are actually buried in a given mound. Brooks and the bill’s Senate author, Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), have cited property owners’ rights to use their land as they see fit, and overly restrictive oversight of mounds by the Wisconsin Historical Society, as motivation for the legislation.

“In my professional opinion,” Birmingham said, the idea that the mounds might not contain remains “is not a reasonable argument. It would be like arguing that there aren’t any graves in a cemetery.” Some 80% of the mounds, which were constructed by people believed to be ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation, have been plowed under or bulldozed to make way for modern land uses.

Protesters inside the rotunda [Selena Fox]

Protesters inside the rotunda [Photo Credit: S. Fox]

Rev. Selena Fox was among the representatives from Circle Sanctuary participating in the protest. “Most public attention is on the fact that this directly threatened native burial mounds and other sacred sites, but it also impacts other natural burials, such as old pioneer burials before embalming and steel caskets. Basically it’s saying you must desecrate a grave to see if remains are there.” Circle Sanctuary maintains a Pagan cemetery which promotes natural burials, and could theoretically be susceptible to the same challenges under the bill.

Before Assembly Speaker Vos announced his intentions concerning the bill, some protesters saw a bald eagle flying high overhead, and took it as a fortuitous sign.  Fox recounted how they moved into the rotunda, drumming and chanting, “Save our mounds.” She noted that the speaker released his statement either during that portion of the protest, or immediately thereafter. “I’m not taking credit for it in the least,” she said. “The statement is being hailed with great appreciation.”

“I think it requires an awful lot more study, an awful lot more conversation,” Vos told reporters.

Fox and others are warning that the fight over this bill is not yet done. The fact that it made it so far into the legislative process without being noticed was troubling to her, and she expects that it will be raised again in a future legislative session. At least as long as Governor Scott Walker is in office, she expects that the idea will continue to be floated in one form or another. She spoke extensively about the issue in her Jan. 12 podcast, which was recorded shortly after she returned from the rally.