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Damage to a mound disturbs UW-Madison’s Indigenous community

In the wake of the July 2021 incident, university officials are pledging to improve protection measures for the ancient monuments.
An illustration shows a map view of the Madison area, including Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, with the Yahara River extending upward from Lake Mendota to the edge of the frame. Overlaid on the green and blue map are outlines of several of the Indigenous mounds, including, in the center-left, the two-tailed water spirit mound that is the focus of this article. Illustration by nipinet.
Illustration by nipinet.

In the wake of the July 2021 incident, university officials are pledging to improve protection measures for the ancient monuments.

In July 2021, a UW-Madison soil science student accidentally damaged one of the mounds on campus—one of the ancient earthwork monuments Indigenous peoples created in the area between about 1,300 and 900 years ago. UW administrators have still not announced the incident to the public nearly a year later, but have signed an agreement with the Wisconsin Historical Society that outlines a plan to improve protection of a group of mounds on Observatory Hill, both through physical changes and staff training centered on awareness of the mounds.

The soil science student was calibrating equipment on Observatory Hill, and dug about five gallons of soil from the two-tailed water spirit mound there, apparently unaware of its historic status. Workers on a campus grounds crew discovered the damage and the instruments on July 8. 

Indigenous UW-Madison students and alumni who spoke to Tone Madison about the incident placed the mound disturbance and the university’s quiet response amid a larger pattern of ignorance and indifference to the mounds in campus culture, and a more fundamental pattern of the university’s mistreatment of Indigenous people. 

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“The very first building on campus, North Hall, is built on a desecrated, dug-up mound,” points out one alum, who spoke with Tone Madison on condition of anonymity. “The very foundations of the UW campus are gravel made from dug up mounds.”

The Madison area and the Upper Midwest are an epicenter of mounds, built as burial sites and for various other purposes by the ancestors of Indigenous groups including the Ho Chunk. Some may date back to as early as 750 A.D., archaeologists have estimated. Various state and federal laws forbid disturbing these sites without authorization. “There are more of the earthen monuments in greater variety on the UW–Madison campus than any other university or college campus anywhere in North America, and probably the world,” noted a 2008 article on UW-Madison’s website. 

They are common sights in Madison-area parks and other public spaces, but white settlers and their descendants in fact destroyed the vast majority of them in the course of developing and urbanizing this area, including the founding and expansion of the university. As it is, the remaining mounds in this area exist in a compromised state. Some have sidewalks or roads cutting right through them, and many are not well-marked.

Sidewalks run through the Observatory Hill mound group, and that is one thing UW-Madison officials are now promising to change. In a memorandum of agreement signed at the end of May with the Wisconsin Historical Society, UW-Madison officials pledge to carry out six action steps, which include “removing, redirecting and reconstructing the sidewalks that currently impinge on the mounds.” UW-Madison spokesperson Kelly Tyrell adds that “The project also includes the installation of a retaining wall to preclude easy access to the mound site.” The MOA also states that UW-Madison is implementing training “for use in onboarding new project managers, facility specialists, staff architects, engineers, and landscape architects,” as well as for leadership in the university’s Division of Facilities Planning and Management. Another stipulation is that “The UW will develop an ‘Archaeological Sites Preservation & Outreach Plan’ that identifies opportunities for educational signage, strategies for developing appropriate educational materials in collaboration with representatives from Native Nations and will pursue funding to implement the Plan.”

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“We have three years to complete these mitigation steps and will be reporting our progress quarterly to the State Historic Preservation Office,” Tyrell says.

UW-Madison administrators have not made a broad public announcement, such as a press release, about the mound disturbance. UW administrators notified Wisconsin’s State Historic Preservation Office, part of the Wisconsin Historical Society, the day after the damage was discovered. This kicked off a review process by the Historical Society’s Burial Sites Preservation Board. On July 15, then-UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank sent a letter to the leaders of the Tribal Nations in Wisconsin addressing the incident. 

Blank’s treatment of Indigenous students and other marginalized groups faced increased scrutiny as she prepared to move on to her new job as the president of Northwestern University. A series in the campus publication North By Northwestern details multiple incidents, some previously reported, in which Blank downplayed the concerns of students of color and concerns about homelessness among UW-Madison students. 

So far, the only publicly visible discussion of the incident has taken place through the Burial Sites Preservation Board. As a state-government body, it holds open meetings and posts agendas and minutes for the public, but it’s still relatively obscure. Members of the BSPB discussed the incident and ongoing efforts to repair the site and improve awareness about the mounds during their September and December meetings. 

Deep history and shallow awareness

Mounds in the Madison area are sometimes marked with small signs or plaques, but for the most part they’re not labeled in very prominent ways—much less physically protected from people damaging them or wandering onto them unawares. It’s perfectly conceivable for a student, a faculty member, or even a lifelong Madison-area resident to go an entire career without much understanding of the centuries of human history that predate the arrival of Europeans in the area.

“My first experience on the UW campus as a student in [the new-student orientation program] SOAR was to have a campus tour and we actually walked past the mounds, and no one said anything,” recalls one alumnus, who asked not to be named in this story. “And then one girl, who I am going to assume was from the suburbs or country, asked, ‘Oh, is that a septic [tank] mound?’ And then the tour guide, who was a student, you know, quickly said, ‘Oh, no, these are actually effigy mounds.'”

While there are opportunities for students and community members to learn about the mounds, including tours that focus on Indigenous history on campus, this education is not a standard or required part of campus life. 

“Students have to choose to take [the tours],” the alum says. “And oftentimes that creates a really skewed sample. Those are people who are already interested in the cultural history of this land and are already probably understanding or at least more aware of Native issues and Native presence. That doesn’t do anything for all the people who aren’t and who might not know, or even worse than not being aware, who are actively malicious towards Native issues, when you look at all the racist incidents that have happened.”

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This alum points out that the mounds are important to UW-Madison’s Indigenous community, including Indigenous students who come from other locales and affiliations. The fact that the mounds are literally ancient monuments, yet treated so casually, underscores the white supremacy that runs through campus culture.

“If somebody started chipping away at the Abe Lincoln statue, I think there would be an absolute uproar. People would be incredibly angry, and there’d be very swift action from the university,” this alum says. Pointing out that “this [mound] is potentially a burial site and at the very least an important cultural site, and it has been silenced,” the alum says it speaks volumes that there’s been almost no public discussion about it. A broad public apology would go a long way, they say, and so would giving the Ho Chunk Nation and other tribal nations more direct control over stewardship of the mounds. “If it were brought to light that this happened, and that it is wrong, and the university does not tolerate it, and that, you know, an apology issued to not only the Ho Chunk nation and the other host nations—Meskwaki, Kickapoo, Peoria, Myaamia, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ—but to all Natives living in the area, you know, who are rightfully hurt by this? That would be kind of this true understanding,” the alum says.

Indigenous people interviewed for this story were by and large not upset with the student who accidentally dug up soil from the mound. Instead, they lay blame at the feet of university administrators, the Department of Soil Science, and the faculty members supervising the student. They say it’s unacceptable that the university doesn’t do more to educate students about the importance and protected status of the mounds—especially in a department where digging stuff up is a routine part of the work.

“It should be day-one intake, ‘Hey, this is the soil of the university, these are off-limits,'” says one Indigenous student, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “There should have been preventative measures, there should have been proper education, and the department should have been held accountable, not the student.”

“I just think the education on it is abysmal. The acknowledgement about it is just not there,” the student added. 

By all accounts, the Soil Science student made an honest mistake, unaware of the importance of the mounds, and was contrite. Punishing that student, one source says, would be “an unequal application of justice… I can’t imagine how stressful this experience has probably been for that [student].”

“The student, who was new to being on campus, has expressed deep remorse; they were not aware that the site was an effigy mound,” another UW-Madison spokesperson, Meredith McGlone, told Tone Madison in December. “The faculty member supervising the research also has expressed their sincere regrets and remorse and was not aware the student intended to work in that area.” 

“The fact that students could dig and not know speaks volumes about how we are educating students on the true history of this place,” says another campus source, who also asked not to be named in this piece.

Kept quiet

UW-Madison administrators, through the campus media-relations office, have defended their response to the incident by saying that they reached out to Tribal leaders and reported the incident immediately to the Burial Sites Preservation Board. McGlone claims that “the university went above and beyond what is required in sharing information about this situation” and compares the campus mound disturbance to others the BSBP took up in 2021. “Looking at two other incidents elsewhere in Wisconsin earlier this year that the board responded to, I’m not seeing press releases or public announcements beyond the board’s communications,” McGlone says.

But the lack of more explicit, outward public acknowledgement of the incident—for instance, in the form of a press release, a community forum on the incident, or other messaging directed toward the campus community at large—feels like a choice to several people interviewed for this story. It is also incongruous with the public-facing efforts UW-Madison has made in recent years to acknowledge and celebrate the area’s Indigenous history and the role of Native people at UW-Madison.

“The vibe I got when I asked a person about it directly was that they were trying to keep it from getting out [and] handling the remediation privately, most likely to prevent any kind of PR mess with Native Nations [or] ruin the goodwill that they’ve gained with the flag or Our Shared Future,” says one campus source with knowledge of the incident, referring to the raising of the Ho Chunk Nation flag on Bascom Hill during UW’s “Native November” programming in 2021. “I will say folks know about it on campus if you’re involved in Native issues of any kind. People have been gossiping about it since early [fall 2021] semester.”

Sources say that Indigenous members of the campus community may be afraid to speak out critically against UW-Madison administrators.

“It puts us in a really hard position where people want to speak out, but at the same time, you know, we don’t want any further harm,” says one alum. “And that’s what’s so hard with this. You want to speak, you want to say something. But [there is] the potential for retaliation, whether they understand it as retaliation or not—because I think a lot of times when people do retaliate, they’re not doing it thinking that they are actively trying to get us or something like that. They are retaliating in ways where they just think, ‘Oh, well, they weren’t very grateful last time,’ which is white supremacy in action. That is, it’s white supremacist, it’s racist. But people don’t understand that.”

The fact that the incident happened during the summer, when many students are not on campus, may also be a factor in the relative lack of public outcry and discussion. “Just not having people around to react to it candidly, I think that’s driven some aspect of it,” says one student. Still, the student says, the communication from university administrators in the wake of the incident “just hasn’t been very good,” and the student says administrators have done little to follow through to prevent future damage to the mounds and spread awareness.

“I think they should have held a town hall with the students,” the student says. “I think they should have made it public. I think they should have made this story known.”

Calls for improvement

One UW-Madison alum points to Carroll University as a contrast. The private university’s Waukesha campus is home to two remaining mounds, of more than a dozen that originally existed there, but they are much more prominently and explicitly marked than the mounds at UW-Madison. “Even though they have so little green space on their campus, they’re still saying, ‘Hey, this green space? Don’t walk on it, Because it’s important, and it’s valuable. So please, please be careful,'” the UW-Madison alum says.

Just putting up signs and markers for a monument that’s literally in and made of the earth requires some extra caution. A permanent sign with a heavy concrete base can contribute to erosion. At UW-Madison, the alum says “they really favor these big, heavy sunken plaques with concrete foundations that are tearing away at the land, and they’re very permanent, but almost become indistinguishable with the landscape, because there are so many plaques everywhere on campus.” 

At the December meeting of the Burial Sites Preservation Board, Ho Chunk Nation Cultural Resources Division Manager Bill Quackenbush said that he would “shy away from plastering an area with signage.” Instead, he said at the meeting, awareness of the mounds and their importance needs to “permeate” the institutional culture in a deeper way.

The Indigenous UW-Madison community members interviewed for this story saw the appropriate response to the incident as an all-of-the-above situation. The mounds themselves need better marking, but to really address these problems, UW-Madison has to more deeply commit to taking responsibility for its historical and present-day role in the oppression of Indigenous people, and make deep, systemic commitments to doing better.

One student asks for “better marking, just even more acknowledgement of the history of the school, which would look bad for the university of course, but also, a lot more involvement with the Native student community. More than what we have seen. And I think in my experience and from what I’ve seen, the image of the university is more important than the atmosphere that they’ve created for the Native students.”

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