‘Indian Mounds of Wisconsin’ offers a modern view of ancient earthworks

By Ken Luchterhand




A book about Ho-Chunk history has recently been made available to the public.
A new publication, “Indian Mounds of Wisconsin,” second publication, was placed in bookstores and online on Oct. 24, 2017. 
The author, Robert Birmingham, along with Amy Rosebrough, revised the previous edition, which was published in 2000, adds new developments since the last printing.
Birmingham is a former Wisconsin state archaeologist, often working with the Ho-Chunk people for more than 25 years. He retired last year and is now making writing his passion.
Written for general readers, “Indian Mounds of Wisconsin,” offers a comprehensive overview of intriguing earthworks and imagery of the ancient cultural practice.
 “There’s be a tremendous amount of new information about mound building in native history since 2000,” Birmingham said. “A lot of the material comes from the new synthesis of information made possible. Computers have made things a lot easier to analyze, and my co-author, for example, did her dissertation on the famous effigy mounds and for the first time, looked at every single effigy mound group ever recorded.”
Rosebrough synthesized that information, which brought a lot of new insights and highlighted how spectacular the particular ceremonial really was in Native American history, Birmingham said.
“In fact, we can rightly call this a cultural world wonder that is virtually unique to Wisconsin. It goes into some other states too, but it is largely focused in Wisconsin. So it highlights that particular topic,” he said.
Other types of information have been coming from new technologies, he said. More accurate maps are derived from Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) imaging, which has emerged in the last couple of years.
“In some cases, mound groups that were known, that had areas obscured by vegetation, new mounds were found,” Birmingham said. “LiDAR has the ability to map just the surface of the ground, so it sort of goes through vegetation, so the arrangements and numbers of mounds are very clear and new mounds are being discovered all the time now, which is a great boon for all of us because previously unknown mounds can now be protected.
“It’s revolutionizing the study of ancient history all over the world. We’re very excited because we are discovering new places which is increasing both our knowledge and emphasizing that more mounds can be protected,” he said.
He primarily used someone else who has the software. The actual mapping of the surface of the ground was done in Wisconsin in a partnership with counties and the state and the federal government and it online on a website named Wisconsinview.com. The reason LiDAR was used for Wisconsin counties is for planning purposes.
“They weren’t primarily looking for mounds. You can see the land surfaces in three dimensions, so it helps identify wetlands, etc., which makes them superb base maps for a variety of reasons,” Birmingham said.
It’s been difficult to keep up on all the new information, he said. Workers at the Wisconsin Historical Society, who have the responsibility for documenting mounds, have been finding dozens of new mounds.
“The majority of mounds in Wisconsin are connected to the Ho-Chunk people,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious that the Ho-Chunk people have been here forever and they are living in the same places that the mounds are built. As one Ho-Chunk elder once said, ‘Who else could have built them?’”
The effigy mounds were probably built at a time when what is now the Ho-Chunk territory was part of a larger group of related people, for example the Ioway people, who split off. It is safe to say that the Ho-Chunk people are among the ancestors of the mound builders. Some other people are, too, who are closely related, he said.
“In regards to the effigy mounds, the forms are very familiar to Ho-Chunk people because these are clan animals and also the great spirits. There is a great correspondence with Ho-Chunk traditional beliefs and effigy mound forms. We have derived a lot of our interpretations about the ancient effigy mounds by taking a closer look at traditional Ho-Chunk beliefs,” Birmingham said.
In the last chapter of the book, it is described about modern preservation efforts of the mounds. Harry Whitehorse made a tree trunk sculpture to honor his ancestors. The tree trunk rotted, so it was replaced with a bronze sculpture, he said. Ho-Chunk people and members of other tribes have gathered at these mound groups in the Madison area to honor their ancestors and to emphasize this whole concept of preservation.
Although each mound group has its own characteristics and magnificence, one group stands out to Birmingham.
“If I were to highlight one beautiful group, it would be the Kingsley Bend mound group along the Wisconsin River. It is now owned by the Ho-Chunk Nation and is beautifully maintained. They are different types of mounds built over a 1,000 year period, so it illustrates the history of mound building,” he said.
During the hearings at the state capitol over protection of the mounds, Birmingham was one of the professional witnesses in the early hearings. During the hearing, many native and non-native people voiced their opinions for continued mound protection, which went across political party lines.
“The people who were advocating for weakening mound protection were surprised at how much the public are now aware of this cultural treasure. It is of native origin, but gives a lot of pride to residents of Wisconsin in general,” he said.
Birmingham believes that lawmakers are now less likely to allow discretion of mounds because residents are now aware of their existence and now realize that they are burial places, along with increasing knowledge of how poorly native people have been treated and how native people have persisted through time.
“Mound building era was a relatively short period of time,” he said. “There are records of people in Wisconsin going back 12,000 years. The mounds, in general, were only built over a 2,000-year period, ending about 1200 A.D. The customs changed after that and they didn’t build mounds, which is a subject of continued research of why not before or after that period.”



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