The Meaning of Effigy Mounds

The Newberry’s website on the “Indians of the Midwest” has a page devoted to “Indian Perspectives.” It “highlights published research by both Native and non-Native scholars. But Native people without academic standing as professional historians also have reflected on and told their own history and they continue to do so in oral history; memoirs; newspaper articles; novels, short stories, plays, and poetry; and more.”

One video posted on the site is of special interest to me, because it is devoted to Ho-Chunk, or Winnebago, Indians talking about the effigy mounds of the Upper Midwest.

You should watch the entire video (it’s only seven minutes long), but here are a couple of excerpts taken from a transcript of the video.

Tom Hopinkah, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), speaks to the significance of the mounds for American Indians as well as for non-Natives: “Any place where these are built, it’s not an ordinary place. …From an Indian tradition and culture, I think this is, you might say, your pyramids in Egypt, your Stonehenge. The most significant thing that the Winnebago or any Native Americans retain is what’s here on this earth. It affects different people different ways, of the feeling you have when you walk on this particular site.”

Lyle Greendeer, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), thinks archaeologists will never know who built the effigy mounds: “They’ll never know. No matter how far back they go. These mounds are made by their spirits. The Indians that fasted within the Indian village. In order to show the Indians, these spirits had to appear on top of the ground. That’s what these are, all of them. They’re not made by human beings.”

The narrator of the video presents the archaeological view that the effigy mounds were built between A.D. 650 and 1250 by ancient American Indians almost certainly including ancestors of the Ho-Chunk/Winnebago. But Robert Birmingham, in his book Spirits of the Earth: the effigy mound landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes, points out that, given the massive cultural disruptions that followed European contact, “finding a direct one-to-one connection between ancient mound builders and specific modern Indian Nations would not be expected.”

The Newberry’s webpage devoted to “Indian Perspectives” is valuable and necessary. The ancient earthworks are first and foremost an American Indian legacy and whether or not native traditions conform to what we have learned from archaeological and historical research they are a part of that legacy.


Posted February 3, 2015
Topics: Archaeology

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