Burial Rights, Repatriation, Reconciliation: Human Rights Issues

(editor’s note – Longtime AES member Donna Stehling was deeply involved in the original fight to preserve the effigy mounds back in the 1980’s. This is her firsthand account of the stuggle. We are grateful to her, the Ho-Chunk nation and all those involved in the work to save these important sacred sites, then and now. -LR)

Burial Rights, Repatriation, Reconciliation: Human Rights Issues

By Donna M. Stehling

Preserving Wisconsin’s Native American mounds and associated ancient sites for future generations is the core mission of the Ancient Earthworks Society (AES). To this end AES members have supported laws protecting mounds and other burial sites from desecration. This account chronicles the history of our society’s work to safeguard pioneering burial rights legislation developed in Wisconsin nearly three decades ago.

Kenna Del Sol, Madison Attorney, had drafted the first burial rights legislation in Wisconsin in 1986, which was enacted April 29, 1986 and published May 6, 1986. 1985 Wisconsin Act 316 protected Indian and pioneer burials outside of the regulated cemeteries. That covered Indian mounds and homesteader’s plots. A committee was established to handle situations involving threats to or the disturbance of such sites.

One year after enactment of the law, I called Kenna at the her State Capitol office, intending to write an article on the effects of the law and how it had been enacted. Kenna, who had felt honored to draft the bill, was now near tears because, due to economic pressures, she had just been told to draft the rescission of that law in order to abolish the committee, freeing funds allocated for its function.

I asked if any of the Winnebago people had been informed; they are the guardians of the mounds. Since she had just been informed herself, Kenna did not know who else would have been contacted, and she had not even had the time or presence of mind to think beyond the pain of the news. Kenna expected the academic community and historical contingent would be aware of the action and come to speak while the rest of the population would read about it in the newspaper after the fact. The standard procedure.

But she was aware of the time schedule. The joint finance committee was meeting within the week and she was overcommitted as it was. This was an injustice she did not wish to be part of, could not stand to see, and could do nothing about. If she did not handle it, someone else would. She did not wish to have just anyone else do this. I told her I would make a few calls and get back to her with the responses.

I then called Bernadine Tallmadge of the Winnebago Indian Museum in Wisconsin Dells. I had come to know her through her husband Roger Little Eagle. Roger had promoted Indian heritage for years through his little museum and store and publications and activities growing out of his studies at Carroll College in Waukesha.

His enthusiasm was not shared by his sons, a common situation. But Roger pursued his heritage promotions with vigor to the chagrin of his sons to the day of his unexpected death during a trip to Germany. Then Bernadine took over management of the store and little museum, attempting to continue with Roger’s mission, and the boys reluctantly assisted. When I called, they were in process of becoming converted to their heritage.

Bernadine told me the Intertribal Council had just finished meeting and members were enroute to their homes all over the state. None of them could be reached for at least a couple days, and, obviously, none would be in a position to turn around and come back to Madison prepared for an official meeting. I told her, even though some prestigious individuals were to be speaking for continuance of burial protection, I believed the Indian position would be most effectively defended by their own people. She agreed and said someone would be there. She would see to it.

The day of the meeting arrived. Several AES members sat together near the back of the committee room to witness the proceedings. The press sat directly behind us. There were no Indian people present as the meeting opened. John Norquist, who later became Mayor of Milwaukee, called the meeting to order and the clerk called for registered speakers to come forward to address the committee.

Bill Green, an archaeologist, Nancy Lurie Osterich, labeled the Winnebago Anthropologist, and Nicholas Mueller II, Curator of the Wisconsin Historical Society, each addressed the committee on behalf of burial rights legislation. Green and Osterich, with academic vocabulary and scientific definitions, documented why the rule had been established and should remain; Mueller explained the need to rescind the law was purely an economic move due to budget constraints, maintaining that the established committee had not been active during its first year, possibly indicating no need for its existence. Concerns about several other projects slated for economic cuts were then presented.

During this time, the chamber door opened and two Winnebago women entered with a young child. The younger woman quietly went to the clerk, registering, while the elder seated herself with the child. Bernadine had come herself.

Shortly after their arrival, the clerk called Bernadine Tallmadge to address the committee. According to protocol among her people, the elder would speak first. But this was significant, for among her people, the women speak freely at council and only men speak the consensus in public forums. Today these women came to speak in public.

She walked to the front of the chamber and seated herself before the committee, respectfully looking down. Papers rustled among the press corps and everyone braced for the expected confrontation.

I had not had time to prepare as those who spoke before me,

I have not studied.

I cannot speak from things written in great books.

I can only speak from the heart.

You have taught us much since you came.

First you taught us of fire water and fire sticks.

You taught us your disease.

You taught us your laws, your religion, your ways.

Twenty years ago, we did not know illegitimate children,

Ten years ago we did not know how to abandon our old.

Now you teach us to desecrate our dead.

I remember one day

I asked my mother where my grandparents were buried.

She took me to a corn field and said, ‘They are here.

It is progress when the white man plows the graves.’

Some day I hope

when my grandchildren ask their mother to show my grave,

she will not have to show them a shopping mall or condominium.

She signed herself with the cross and spoke a prayer in her own language. Then she left. No one moved. It was possible to hear people breathe.

The clerk called Alberta Day, younger and not known for a quiet, benign demeanor. She, too, seated herself before the committee. Only she looked them in the eye. It is not considered respectful to do so in her tradition. She spoke small words quickly in a whisper.

I am an American, not by choice,

But because you say I am.

My ancestors were her before yours were born.

My ancestors loved this land.

Many times the Winnebagoes were removed from this land.

Each time they returned.

The Winnebago hunted and the land was well.

The Winnebago fished and the land was well.

The Winnebago cultivated the land and the land was well.

We cared for this land and the land was well.

Become like us the laws said.

Become like us.

You tricked us with your words and ceremonies.

You lied,

Separated children from fathers and mothers,

Led us away in the winter cold.

Even those of us who came to live among you, you sent away.

Led us away to die.

Become like us, you say.

Own the land, you say.

Mark it off,

And it was done as you say.

The forests were cut

The rivers drained

The land was covered with concrete.

It is not spirit smoke which fills the skies

It is not gift tobacco scattered upon the land.

The land is marked off

You take more than you can use and rot it in storage.

You own the land.

Now the land is not well.

You put our rights on paper and call yourself honorable.

You make treatise with people around the world,

And keep none with us.

You stand for human rights before the world

And deny us our ways, our religion, even our graves.

You tell us to become like you–

Deceitful, dishonorable, greedy.

I am an American, not by choice,

But because you say I am.

Alberta walked back to her place. She alone moved, seating herself beside the child. We listened to breathing, and from our place in the last row before the press corps, we saw bowed heads. Behind us, the press corps was motionless, silent.

Finally the clerk, in a hushed voice, asked if there were any other speakers. Because there were none, the committee meeting was adjourned to deliberate. Their chairs scraping the floor shattered the silence. People glanced at one another, looked away, coughed, and shuffled nervously at their places as if embarrassed, unsure of what to say or do next.

Bernadine reached over for my hand, “I was so worried we would be late. We were so rushed this morning with our granddaughter, getting breakfast and all. Everything for this has been such a rush. I had no time to look up anything or even talk to anyone who would know what to say.”

Pressing past extended hands and reporters, we left together, planning to introduce ourselves over lunch. On the way out of the capitol, Alberta dropped in on the Governor’s office to chide “Tommy” about forgotten campaign promises, warning him about asking for any campaign help again. She was fiery and in charge, totally unintimidated by guards and secretaries. She had made herself heard. Through the concourse they chatted about quiche recipes. Along the street, we glanced in windows, weighing crowds and menus till we agreed upon a table at a Greek restaurant where we ordered Polynesian and Italian food with a side order of french fries for Angela, the granddaughter. This trip was to be an experience for her, according to her grandmothers, something to remember.

As we waited for our food, we introduced the AES members around the table and the purpose of the organization: James Scherz, Betty Feldt, Ruth and Norm Schmidt, Dave Weier, Donna Stehling. They told us stories about the Four Lakes and Lake Mendota, and wondered if they had done anything effective for the mounds. As we spoke, several members of the subcommittee wandered in and made their way up to the balcony where we were seated. Two came over, bowing to the women and introduced themselves. “We want you to know, what you asked for, you have,” they said.

There had been only one nay vote, a formality by the chairman of the committee. Burial rights legislation remained in effect. Within months it would be tested.

Properties around the lakes in any area are prime locations for most communities. Taxes are high, making it difficult for those who have long owned or inherited properties. Ownership of lake properties now tends to belong to the extremely wealthy or development corporations. In some instances, community governments encourage developers with proven track records to propose projects in order to raise the community tax base; while in others, such developments are scrutinized cautiously since they raise the demand for services and may reduce available community green space.

Inevitable taxes and realistic urban planning are community issues, often placing citizens, developers, and the local governments at odds. No matter what is done, the situation is unsatisfactory.

On Lake Monona, developers had been purchasing numerous properties, removing single family housing and building posh condominiums. Ordinary citizens who had taken the lake view for granted were becoming alarmed.

Then the “House of Fiddles” was placed on the market. The owner, Mickey Bloom, relative of the original builder Knut Reindahl, had tried to maintain the house out of respect for his relative and his contribution to the community, but taxes were making it impossible for him and his wife to afford living on the site. A developer had approached them with an offer they would be foolish to refuse. Reluctant to sell and financially unable to do anything else, Bloom was frustrated.

For generations, the mound and the house co-existed peacefully. Local school children came regularly to look at the mound during their Woodland Indian studies. Citizens were afforded a beautiful view of the lake, with the capitol dome across the water, appearing to float above the mound at all times of the year. Unknown to most, the mound marked the spring equinox, the sun of spring’s first day rising directly over the tail of the mound annually.

When the Reindahl Mound was threatened by construction of an exclusive condominium, a coalition of concerned Monona citizens and mound preservationists formed the Monona Heritage Foundation, acquiring tax exempt status in order to solicit funds and grants with the intent of purchasing the site to preserve it from development. The site immediately became a community issue, with fund-raisers and telethons, town meetings, house gatherings. The developers went to court and burial rights legislation was tested.

John Beaudin, a Chippewa from a Canadian clan, had married a Winnebago woman, and, according to tradition, accepted the directives of his mother-in-law. In Winnebago tradition, the children of one brother or sister call all the uncles and aunts father and mother, meaning they have numerous grandparents as well. There is always someone there for the child, a truly extended family. When a woman marries, the new husband acquires her extended family.

Bernadine Tallmadge was one of his mothers-in-law, and she directed him to represent the Winnebagoes of Dane County. John was a gifted, intelligent person who had intended to study medicine until Viet Nam interrupted his schooling. After seeing body parts strewn across the battlefield, John elected to direct his studies toward law. Being a member of a sovereign Indian nation and proficient in several Indian and European languages, it was almost natural for him to become involved in international law.

He traveled much during his professional and personal life, proud of his heritage. The way his people were presented to the world concerned him, and he often commented upon this.

Western movies are big in Europe.

Cowboys and Indians,

The wild American West.

I went to a movie in England.

The Indians came over the hill screaming–

Whoopee ti yi yoo!

Subtitles said, “Kill them all!”

I saw the same movie in France.

“Kill them all!

Kill them all!”

It was so in Germany and Russia.

“Kill them all!

Kill them all!”

The Indians came over the hill screaming–

Whoopee ti yi yoo!

They waved weapons

Rode down the cowboys

And there was a slaughter.

The audience wanted more.

There was so much wrong.

No research.

No thought for tradition.

But how was the audience to know!

Indians wore Sioux war bonnets

Apache jewelry

Chippewa leggings

Some carried Iroquois weapons

Their horses had Navajo trappings

And the cry as they came over the hill was not for war;

It was the joyous greeting of friends.

No one spoke of treaties broken,



There was fear, hate, revenge.

Generic Indians, the enemy

White hatted cowboys, the victims

No research,

But that is how we are shown to the world

This is what the world knows of us–





Savages of the wild American West.

Whoopee ti yi yo!

“Kill them all!”

To prepare the legal brief proving the Reindahl Mound was a burial, John directed a coalition of volunteers to research all documents which referred to the site and adjacent mounds, extant or destroyed. He also encouraged the documentation of oral tradition as collected from elders.

Members of Ancient Earthworks Society scoured the archives at the State Historical Society, requested materials on microfilm from the Smithsonian, and conducted interviews with several elders, compiling audio and video documentation with transcriptions as necessary. Surveys and maps of the site were made in spite of the winter snows and redone in spring to test proposed theories of the equinox alignment.

Members of the Monona Heritage Foundation also assisted in the interviews and orchestrated informational exchange meetings with elders and members of the Heritage board and citizens of the community. Their communal efforts culminated in an Indian dinner and dance which was hosted by the coalition and fed more than 300 people at no charge.

Joanne Jones, present chairperson of the Wisconsin Winnebago Nation, arranged for Harold Jones Funmaker, elder of the Bear Clan, to come to the site to recite tribal history and blessings. John Greengrass, Lyle Greendeer, Tom Hopinkah, and Chief Winneschek were consulted. Other Indian nations involved in rights issues joined in the effort and asked to become part of the activity, forming a rainbow coalition which presented dances, concerts, and a candlelight procession beginning with “We Shall Overcome” and ending with midnight chants around a Winnebago drum under the courthouse canopy. Lew and Walt Brissette and Bobby Bullet took part in several of these activities.

Archeologists became involved, providing basic information about mounds in general and compiling statistics. Incorporated with Native oral tradition, this picture emerged:

  • Ninety percent of the mounds of the world are located in this hemisphere, the place known as Turtle Island.
  • Ninety percent of the effigy mounds of the world are located within a hundred mile radius of the Four Lakes (Madison), part of the region known as the heart of the turtle.
  • The southern Wisconsin region, including most of the driftless area, covers the Wisconsin prairie.
  • Most mounds are located within ⅛ to ¼ mile of a waterway; just like the mound, some waterways no longer exist.
  • Some Archeologists say Algonquian people built the mounds between 650 A.D to 1300 A.D.
  • Oral tradition suggests mound builders were Hochungra (Ho-Chunk) ancestors.
  • Mounds were usually built in groups of mixed types: conical, linear, and effigy, with a truncated pyramidal mounds at a few sites.
  • Evidence suggests Indian groups periodically revisited sites to construct new mounds, and this is supported by oral tradition.
  • In the Four Lakes area alone there were nearly 1000 mounds associated with 115 mound groups. Development has destroyed more than 80% of the mounds and we lose 20% of those left annually.
  • According to archeological records, evidence of burial exists in 75% of mounds properly dug. Other records indicate numerous mounds had been dug where bones and funerary objects or altars were discovered, but there had been no control over the evidence and/or proper documentation. Journals, letters, diaries, and magazine articles accompanied with photos indicate many other sites were ransacked and most informally documented. Digging Indian mounds was reason for a Sunday afternoon picnic, and skulls became mantel trophies.
  • It is also known that certain acidic soils tend to cause the disintegration of buried material more rapidly than alkaline soils. Some mounds contained cremated bodies. Oral tradition tells us some mounds were created by the ashes of generations of ancestors. At the present time, forensic studies of such sites to provide indisputable evidence of human burial would be cost prohibitive.
  • There is also a tradition of memorials when blood and bone or ash burials are not possible. Personal items have been interred, closing off a portion of life for an individual so that those remaining may go on. This sort of a burial is no less a burial than any other in human tradition.

Therefore, based upon all this data, the archaeologists arrived at the conclusion that 80% of all mounds would be burial sites. They further reasoned, that in view of the fact that all marked plots in a cemetery are considered gravesites, than all mounds in a mound group would be considered burials.

All the information gathered was delivered to John Beaudin who assembled it into a legal brief presented in court where the rights of burial were upheld, meaning Indian mounds are to be given the same protection as cemetery burials. Pioneer sites were to be included in the ruling. Such sites are not to be disturbed. The Reindahl Site was declared a legal burial without invasive digging.

This was a landmark decision, setting off a ripple effect and impacting other similar pending issues in other states. Wisconsin Burial rights legislation became the national model.

From this point on, Wisconsin mound sites were protected; they could be researched and documented without digging and this evidence sent to the Historical Preservation Office of the Wisconsin Historical Society for registration which entitles the site to tax exempt status. The ruling also calls for the return of bones, grave goods, and ceremonial objects to the living guardians of the tribal graves for proper repatriation.

Development and construction about a mound site is also restricted; a twenty-five foot set-back from the base of the mound was recommended. Although there is a fine for damage to a site and interstate transport of burial items, penalties may not be severe enough to deter developers, looters, and trafficers in Indian artifacts which currently command high prices, especially in the European market.


Vandalism and looting for profit are one side of the burial rights issue. Digging for research is another. Until recently, it was possible for archaeologists to obtain permits to dig up Indian graves twenty-five years old and remove the bodies and grave goods in the name of research. Museums and research departments have stores of bones and funerary objects in their basements and vaults, ostensibly for projects or barter. Native people have objected to the desecration of graves and inappropriate display of bones and sacred objects, contending such items should be returned and reburied.

On November 16, 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became public Law 101-601 (HR 5237), affecting museums, historical societies, and research institutions nationally. Daniel Innoye, Senator from Hawaii, was instrumental in guiding this legislation through Congress. Native American human remains and cultural objects may now be claimed by proper Native American representatives, and institutions receiving federal funds must prepare summary descriptions of the scope of their Native American collections, including number and kinds of objects, and where such information may be obtained. Items include human remains, unassociated funerary objects (objects placed with individual human remains), sacred objects (ceremonial objects needed for religious practices), and objects of cultural patrimony (collectively-owned objects viewed as inalienable — nontransferable in any fashion).

Copies of the law and its explanation can be obtained from state historical societies or from Dr. C. Timothy McKeown, NAGPRA Program Leader, National Park Service, PO Box 37127, Suite 210, Washington, DC 20013-7127, TELE (202) 343-4104: FAX (202) 523-1547. Notice of either collection summaries, requests for repatriation, and Notices of Intent to Repatriate must be sent to the Secretary of the Interior for publication in the Federal Register. Notices of Intent are subject to a 90 day claims challenge before any object can be returned to a tribe.

In the event of a dispute between a Native American group and a museum, an appeal may be made to a Review Committee established by the legislature. Unclaimed Native American remains or cultural objects which should be repatriated, as well as multiple claims, have been provided for with this legislation.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required the first set of collection summaries be filed by Nov. 16, 1993; the final set is due Nov. 16, 1995. Meanwhile roads are cut and developments are constructed where burials are disturbed. Already a research institution is challenging the law on the grounds that the remains cannot be traced to any particular tribal affiliation.


John Beaudin, Wa Kanja Hoohega, died April 4, 1993. He was 47 years old, the victim of cancer. He was ceremonially buried at the Blue Wing Cemetery in Tomah.

As a Viet Nam veteran John came to realize the need for healing among the veterans and their families and friends. With fellow veteran Howard Sherpe, a Madison advertising company owner, he became involved in the planning and construction of the Dove Mound at Highground in Neillsville, Wisconsin. A portion of that planning included inviting veterans and families of KIAs and MIAs to participate. They were asked to bring bags of earth from a place special to their veteran or a special object.

The officer in charge of receiving the bags of earth said families and friends would come with or send their contributions gathered from yards, baseball fields, farms, homes, jobs, fields, fishing holes, hang outs–and every contribution from all 72 Wisconsin counties had a story. It was a deeply emotional experience for everyone, including himself, to his surprise. He realized this small act was for many the first important step in the healing process which allowed them to finally close off one aching experience and go on with life. Earth and objects sacred to the mound-building veterans and their families was placed in the heart of the dove.

Highground itself became a place of healing. Many vets pilgrimage to this site, sitting in the hollow of the dove’s wing, walking across its curving surface where it appears to glide over the crest of the hill, or standing at a distance to simply stare. Some spend time at “Doc’s Wall,” a symbolic place where emotional walls are torn down and emotional rubble is scattered among real pink and gray granite boulders. Vets come full of pain and often leave feeling some peace and hope. Many return regularly, as John Beaudin said, “…to lie down in the wings of Mother Earth and leave their problems behind.”

In 1990 Professor Nguyen Ngoc Hung of the Hanoi Foreign Language Institute visited Madison. He had served six years in the Vietnamese army and, hearing about Highground, asked to visit. John Beaudin and a somewhat skeptical Howard Sherpe took him. At Highground they looked across the mound and the land, and then began to talk, discovering Hung had been a reluctant soldier who lost family, friends, his girl to the war and still had a brother missing. As did they, Hung continued to carry 27 years of grief. They prayed together for his missing brother and all the missing. Before leaving, they sealed a new understanding and friendship by autographing a rock.

A number of vets have found the need to return to Viet Nam to collect dirt and debris from battle sites where comrades fell, carrying this home to bury so they can bring peace to their souls and the souls of those fallen. Some simply feel compelled to walk the land where they lost their youth. In the course of these battle site visits, they have encountered Vietnamese vets anxious with the same pursuits for the same reasons. Dialogues were begun and reconciliation followed.

Many mention Highground and its healing affect. Plunging deeper into the process, now American veterans have united with Vietnamese veterans to construct a Dove Mound in the Veterans Peace and Reconciliation Park at the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam. Vietnam’s forestry department has donated a 10 acre rice field 10 kilometers from the city for the park but will not become involved in the construction.

Those involved in the project believe it will be a place where Vietnamese and American vets can come for healing. They anticipated mound building would begin In November 1994. David Giffey, Viet Nam vet from Arena, Wisconsin, who designed the Neillsville Dove Mound, will meet with Vietnamese artists to cooperate in the design plans of their mound.

Many believe the healing can come only by returning to the place where the pain began. They need to face the places, the people, the memories; some believe they must physically rebuild what had been destroyed in order to rebuild their own peace of mind. This is the classic hero’s journey. It is a human experience. People need healing sites, places to focus on reconciliation, peace memorials, monuments to closures and new beginnings.

There are stories among the Winnebagoes which speak of going to the Rock River people who knew how to bring the stars down to earth. They say the stars provided guidance on their journies here and to the spirit world, astonishingly similar to Judaeo-Christian metaphors. Aligned as they are to the stars, mounds do provide guidance on this earth as well as any compass, clock, or calendar. But they also provided emotional, spiritual, cultural, and social guidance. From the Viet Nam vets we have learned mounds still provide for these human needs. Mounds may have been an integral part of Native American cultural heritage in the past; it may be they should become an integral part of American cultural heritage.

Property owners who wish to register a mound for preservation may call the Historic Preservation Office at the State Historical Society, (608) 262-1339. Those interested in preserving a mound site will need to do some research to provide documentation. Since the notes of T. H. Lewis have been microfilmed and can be acquired through interlibrary loan by citizens in the state of Wisconsin, considerably more information for documentation purposes is available.

Citizens who become aware of a mound in danger of mutilation or destruction or a mound which has been actually damaged may contact the DNR–Natural Areas Preservation, (608) 266-8916. If a mound is in imminent danger, call your local law enforcement.

In the spring of 1993 John’s daughter came to Highground and did a Native American victory dance on the Dove Mound before her father’s ashes were scattered over the wildflowers on the mound. Many veterans believe, as did John, Highground is a spiritual place for them, a place they can go to heal their spiritual wounds.

Wa Kanja Hoohega


Everyone was someone

in his eyes.

Each person felt as if touched by magic

when he engaged you.

Winds soared above the skyway

when he uncovered half truths

making the liars feel shameful

The gift of his soul

was that he left you humming

I can feel him soaring

listen he is dancing.

Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas

A Song of Greatness

A Chippewa Indian Song

When I hear the old men

Telling of heroes,

Telling of great deeds

Of ancient days,

When I hear them telling,

Then I think within me

I too am one of these.

When I hear the people

Praising the great ones,

Then I know that I too

Shall be esteemed,

I too when my time comes

Shall do mightily.