Rapid development running into Minnesota's Indian burial mounds

1899 map of burial mounds
This map from 1899 shows a group of burial mounds near Pillager, Minn. A highway, homes and businesses have since been built over many of the mounds. A local township wants to preserve the few that are left.
MPR Photo

John and Bob Lee stuff firewood into the top of an old cast iron stove as they try to warm up their hunting shack on a chilly spring day. The Lee brothers' one-room hunting cabin is tucked among the pines west of Brainerd, in the middle of their retirement nest egg.

Robert and John Lee
Bob, on the left, and John Lee near their hunting cabin. When the Lee brothers tried to get a permit to develop some of their land, they discovered their property contained dozens of burial mounds.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

They bought 400 acres back in the late 1970s, mainly to have a place to hunt deer. But they also wanted to develop a few acres near a highway to provide some income. Their plans changed soon after they started working to obtain the proper permits.

"To our surprise, we discovered that when we put our money down for the permits, it came back and was cancelled due to possible Indian burial," John Lee said.

After more research, the Lee brothers found the land they purchased contained dozens of burial mounds. Covered with prairie grass, the 10-acre site has no visible signs of mounds. But they're documented on century old maps, and they show up in aerial photographs from the 1960s.

If it was our ancestors in there, we'd want it preserved.

It's a crime to disturb a burial site, so the land the brothers hoped to develop now sits empty. Bob Lee says at first, he was frustrated. "I guess as time wears on, you kind of calm down a bit. We realize if it was our ancestors in there we'd want it preserved," Bob Lee said.

The Lee brothers are working with their local township board to find a way to set aside and preserve the site containing the mounds, while preserving their right to develop nearby land.

According to state archeologist Scott Anfinson, conflict between development and culturally significant sites like burial mounds is happening more often in Minnesota, especially as development eats up land.

"Every day I get at least two calls on something relating to what I call the 307," Anfinson said.

Hidden burial mounds
Rusted farm machinery and other discarded junk sits in a field near Pillager. This land is home to more than 50 burial mounds, but the land was also farmed for 100 years. Now a local township is working to preserve the land.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Minnesota statute 307.08 provides for the protection of burial sites in Minnesota. While it's a felony to disturb a known burial site, Anfinson said it happens by accident all the time, especially in the summer.

"With the construction season starting in Minnesota, we're going get calls all summer long with people accidentally hitting burials. It's just the way it is. A lot of burials aren't marked by mounds, or the mounds have been plowed down or people in their backyard think it's just a hill and they don't think it's a burial mound," Anfinson said.

Anfinson and his staff are working on a huge database identifying all the Indian burial mounds and old pioneer cemeteries in the state, in hopes of preventing the disturbance of human remains.

For the state's Indian tribes, this is an emotional issue. For years, little care was taken in preserving burial sites. Mounds were brazenly bulldozed for roads and other building projects.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones is a cultural resource specialist with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. Jones is working on the documentation and preservation of burial mounds.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Jim Jones, a cultural resource specialist with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said the situation is getting better. But some landowners are still afraid to come forward when they find a burial site.

"Cases we don't hear about are the ones who don't tell anybody about it. They have misinformation that we're going to take it away or shut it down," Jones said.

Neither the Indian Affairs Council nor the state archeologist take over the land when a burial mound is found. Most often landowners or developers can go ahead with their plans, with some changes.

Jones says sometimes they remove the remains and rebury them elsewhere. In cases of large groups of mounds or cemeteries, they try to work with landowners to buy the site, or create a buffer around it.

Jones is working to identify new sources of money to help support the documentation and preservation of Indian burial sites in Minnesota. He considers it a critical way to preserve Minnesota's Native American history and culture.

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