The Grand Mound, a 25-foot-tall American Indian burial site in the far reaches of northern Minnesota, was designated a National Historic Landmark several years ago.
But it and four other smaller mounds some 2,000 years old have been closed to the public because of state budget cuts in 2002.
Officials at the Minnesota Historical Society are determined now to figure out its fate.
After a series of meetings with various tribal groups, officials said they will decide this fall whether to reopen the sacred site in some way or keep it closed for the foreseeable future.
“The issues are access, and what level of access does everybody feel comfortable with?” said Joe Horse Capture, director of Native American Initiatives at the Historical Society, who noted the sensitivity of the issue. “Out of all of our 26 [historic] sites that we have in this state … Grand Mound is, I guess one would say, probably the most sensitive one.”
The mounds sit near the confluence of the Rainy River on the Canadian border and the Big Fork River, about 17 miles west of International Falls. A number of tribes spent time there harvesting spawning sturgeon, said Mattie Harper, the Historical Society’s program and outreach manager in the Native American Initiatives department. The site contains different types of burials as people’s beliefs and practices changed over time, Harper explained. Members of various tribes have different historical stories from the site, too, she said.
Tribal members have advocated for a range of options, from keeping the site closed to the public while making it available only to those who claim an ancestral relationship, to opening part of the site for education.
“The positions vary widely,” said Dennis Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, a state agency that has been following the discussion. “Of course there is, I think, a widely held position that the site is a cemetery site first and foremost. It is a sacred burial site that needs to be treated as such.”
Members of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, near the Grand Mound, suggested keeping it closed to tourists, but making it available to Indians to conduct ceremonies.
“They just didn’t feel that it was right to open up a visitors center to go through basically a cemetery,” said Corey Strong, executive director of the tribal government. “I’m pretty sure that anybody else in the state would not appreciate the tribe opening up a visitors center and trampling through people’s cemeteries where their families were buried.”
Some members were OK with opening it for guided educational tours, however. Historical society officials will also consider feedback from local business, civic, educational and cultural leaders in Koochiching County.
County Board Chairman Wade Pavleck said officials there have been waiting for the Historical Society to do something. He said county officials watched an interpretive center sit empty and deteriorate, while across the Canadian border, the Rainy River First Nations tribe turned a similar historical site into a gathering space featuring tours, galleries, and a restaurant serving traditional Ojibwe cuisine.
“They have preserved the existing mounds across the river,” Pavleck said. “They’ve built an interpretive center that … protects the properties and educates people on the fabulous history that we have here in this area.”
Historical Society officials said they expect to call a larger meeting in August in hopes of reaching an agreement among various groups.
“There’s many interested parties who feel very passionately about the site for a number of different reasons,” Capture said. For many American Indian groups, it’s “highly likely that their ancestors are buried there.”
“We need to sort of get this settled and be respectful.”