Preserving and marking the sites of ancient Native American burial mounds, which are prevalent in the Midwest where ancient tribes such as the Adena lived until 1 A.D, is crucial for acknowledging the depth of the scars colonialism has left on our society. However, a simple marker or plaque beside a mound can only do so much — a deeper understanding of different indigenous cultures is needed if we are to truly empathize with and respect people who lived here before Europeans laid their first camps.
Imagine this situation: an Adena mound is located on the construction site of an office complex. The contractor has bought all the supplies, has promised their employees work and has promised their client an office building. Construction commences, and in the process of digging out the basement someone finds a skull. Federal law requires the contractor to call law enforcement and establish a crime scene. Then a coroner works with ethnoforensics specialists to excavate, halting the project for, say, a year.
By the time they finish, the contractor has to pay his builders for the work they were shorted and is eager to speed along the building process so the client doesn’t hire somebody else for their next job. Ethnoforensics say some remains — some tools, an arm or a leg — might still be there, but they extracted what they could to comply with the law in a timely manner.
The land on which the mound once sat is then partially covered with an office building, and the other portion has been flattened to create a clean-cut lawn. The remains found in the mound are safe inside a local historical society, guarded by the meticulous hands of conservation specialists in a temperature-controlled room, but the land from whence it came bears no mark of the objects ever being there. And nothing marks the site that was once a sacred tomb.
Something kind of similar (kind of) happened in 2012 with Richard III of England, whose remains were found under a church parking lot. I don’t think construction workers knew what they were building on when they were laying pavement, but the fiasco became a media sensation, and now there are memes about it.
It’s funny when the thing being defiled is perceived by the dominant culture as larger than life — has the privilege of, well, royalty.
It’s not so funny when the people whose legacy is being defiled are the ancestors of a demographic that has been, and continues to be, consistently undervalued and mistreated by dominant American culture. So, what should we do about it?
One option is a plaque. A memorial. More extensive museums. But, surprise, it’s not that simple.
What even is a mound? I don’t know the answer, and I’ve visited museums and read chapters and book articles about them. I know they contain bones and “token objects,” according to one of the four plaques at Shrum Mound, but I don’t know what any of this meant for the Adena people. How long after someone died were they buried? Who in the tribe helped to build the mound? What kinds of rituals, if any, were held around the mounds? Why were certain tools — items of use — buried along with the deceased people? Some of this information may be unavailable, just because that’s the nature of studying ancient societies. Then again, maybe we just destroyed all the evidence.
When I visited Shrum Mound, I could obviously see it, but I couldn’t feel the depth of its meaning in my own bones the way I could in St. Paul’s Cathedral. I needed a better translation of Adena culture than what the plaque could give me. Because of this, my visit to Shrum Mound in some ways felt trivial. I saw a giant bulge in the earth, but I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It’s impossible to connect with these ancient communities when there are no markers, but even when there are markers, I can’t glean as much as I need from them to feel any such connection.
What I know I share with the Adena people is the land. Without conflating indigenous people and “nature,” which can be a dehumanizing and dangerous thing to do, I’ve been trying to learn more about the landscape I’ve dwelled upon all my life, as I know it offered powerful resources to ancient communities who hunted, gathered and farmed on it. My new field guide about wildflowers in Ohio will give me a Westernized, classification-focused education. Though I can’t say for sure, it’s likely a much different understanding of local flora than what the Adena had. Still, it’s a start.
Flipping through its sturdy pages, I take note of which are native and which were introduced from abroad (mostly Europe), as those are the plants the Adena most likely used. I learned the Oswego people used the red-flowered plant Monarda didyma, a type of mint, for tea (the plant is now colloquially called Oswego Tea). Though I’m not familiar with its red flowers, I see the light purple blooms of its relative, Monarda fistulosa, everywhere around here. That plant, colloquially named Wild Bergamot, has been cultivated for European commercial teas. I haven’t yet made the tea, but I hope to try it soon and taste what the Adena might have.
Regan Detwiler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org