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Beloit College faculty, students care for burial grounds

BELOIT, Wis. — A new wave of Beloit College students are actively working to help raise awareness of the indigenous burial mounds that span the college’s central campus, while recognizing past mistreatment of the sacred ground and native peoples.

The mounds are estimated to have been built between 500 BC and 1200 AD. Around 20 of the 27 mounds remain on campus, some of which were excavated or built over as the campus grew. According to Wisconsin State Archaeologist Robert Birmingham, 80% of mounds have been destroyed in Wisconsin.

The mounds were built by indigenous people that are believed to be the descendants of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

The tribe has long referred to Beloit as “Kechunk” that means Turtle Village. Ho-Chunk tribal member Samantha Skenandore, who served as a Ho-Chunk archivist prior to attending law school, took on a project to fully document the tribe’s long-standing presence in the Rock River Valley, with an emphasis on Beloit.

Skenandore said Beloit College contacted the tribe for further background on the mounds and to identify best practices in caring for the mounds, the Beloit Daily News reported.

She said that researchers and scholars continue to seek out the “mystery” behind mound culture.

“Since I was a little girl, I was counseled by my elders to not share certain things about our culture, because to do so came at a great risk,” Skenandore said. “The lesson was that if you share our most sacred knowledge, someone can then destroy it. This is very similar to modern legal concepts involving proprietary rights. Yet it is hard to hide an earthen structure that spans more than a hundred feet and even more difficult to hide a grouping of the same. Ho-Chunks have endured generations of efforts to expose the cultural meanings of the mounds generally and specific to certain mound groups. It seems that the Nation continues to observe an unwritten rule to decline the opportunity to share.”

Nonetheless, Skenandore said the Ho-Chunk Nation “has been largely successful in protecting that knowledge from likely desecration.”

To further understanding of the mounds, Skenandore said the tribe looks to work closely with school districts and local governments to share the history of the Nation. A key aspect of preservation for the Nation comes by way of assisting land owners with best practices for mound preservation and maintenance of mound sites.

But challenges remain, Skenandore said, citing the broad geographical footprint of the mounds across the Midwest and complications due to sites being owned by private land owners.

“These realities certainly bring many challenges and the Nation is known to help property owners adopt custom maintenance plans and best practices,” Skenandore said. “The Nation has worked closely with the Wisconsin State Archaeologist and the Burial Sites Preservation Office to enforce the Wisconsin law on burial sites preservation.”

Mounds are expressly included and protected under Wisconsin law.

Archaeological excavation and campus development on and near the mounds stopped in the 1970s as burial protection laws and cultural sensibilities changed,