Grand Mound, a huge American Indian landmark on Minnesota's northern border, will once again welcome visitors to its trails. But the interpretive center near the sacred burial ground will be razed, rather than reopened.
A new plan for the site — developed over months of meetings with American Indian leaders, Koochiching County officials and others — gets rid of the building, shuttered during budget cuts in 2003. Instead of sustaining such a center, the Minnesota Historical Society wants to invest in outdoor displays and a staff person who would spend time beyond Grand Mound, which rises from the flood plain of the Rainy and Big Fork rivers.
"Historic sites have changed a lot," said Ben Leonard, the Historical Society's manager of community outreach and partnerships. "And the things we were doing in 1975 when we built that visitors center are different from 2002 realities when it closed — are different from 2015."
But some local leaders who have long protested Grand Mound's closure say a center ought to be part of the plan. Of course money is tight, said County Commissioner Wade Pavleck, but decisions should be based more on "principle and protection of a very historic site." "My gosh, if that thing was south of Hwy. 2, it wouldn't even be a question," he said. "It would be manned, staffed and run year-round."
Part of a series of mounds built along the Rainy River, Grand Mound is the largest intact burial mound in the Upper Midwest. For centuries, the Laurel Indians gathered in the area, where sturgeon spawned, near what's now the Canadian border. "Here they set up camps to trade, socialize, feast and conduct ceremonies," says a 2007 report to the Legislature. "And here they buried their dead."
Some Indian leaders supported the site's closing because of those sacred burials. But the Historical Society's Indian Advisory Council now backs the plan to open the area — with the hope that Indian people can help tell a broader story focused on the other activities there.
"The difference from years ago is that it's being done today in a respectful manner," said Jim Jones, a member of that council and cultural resource director with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. "People are listening with open hearts and minds."
Technology-rich panels and programming will tell a "much more rich and inclusive story," Leonard said. For example, visitors could learn that archaeologists now believe the shape of Grand Mound could indicate that it's not only a burial mound, but an effigy.
The mound, with its long tail, might represent a muskrat, "the Earth Diver of ancient legend" who plays a heroic role in the world creation story, according to a 2015 article by David Mather, the National Register archaeologist in the historical society's State Historic Preservation Office.
Dynamic programs on that topic and others, on-site and off, would add to a historic site set up for self-guided tours, Leonard said. That staff person would help make International Falls the Historical Society's headquarters in the region, he added.
"We are excited to share that story with a new audience," Leonard said. "There's a generation of kids who have grown up without being able to take a field trip there."
On the Canadian side, the Rainy River First Nations tribe runs a center for a similar mound site. Open from May to October, it is staffed by about seven people, Chief Jim Leonard said. In the winter, a skeleton staff conducts tours by invitation and appointment, and nearby, people cross-country ski and take sleigh rides.
Jim Leonard hopes that once Grand Mound is reopened, the two sites can work together on projects and programs. He would prefer that Grand Mound staff an interpretive center but knows that money is tight. "It's not the best option," he said of the new plan, "but it's a step in the right direction."
Researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.