Monday, September 8, 2008

'Buried Indians: Digging Up the Past in a Midwestern Town' by Laurie Hovell McMillin: A Review

American society is heterogeneous and, these days, more often than not, divided. Although this is a young nation, roots go more than deep enough to impact present relationships. This book is one woman’s attempt to untangle some of these relationships in her own Mississippi-river hometown of Trempeauleau, Wisconsin.

This summer we camped about 75 miles south of Trempeauleau, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. The Upper Mississippi is a beautiful, lush area, featuring bluff-top views of the river and its swampy backwaters, laced with quiet bayous that are great for canoeing. It is also rich with the histories of Native American cultures (most visibly the Ho-Chunk, formerly known as Winnebago), (largely) French fur traders, and (mostly) northern European farmers. The fur traders are gone (though it’s interesting to think about what of their culture may have survived) but the two other groups remain.

Buried Indians is both a memoir and an exploration of the issues surrounding past and present relationships among whites and Indians in Trempeauleau. The author is a member of the former group by birth, her forbears going back a couple of hundred years in that town. She is set apart, however, because she has moved away and chosen to become an anthropologist, specializing in the culture of Tibet. The theme of the academic as separate from the surrounding culture permeates her account as she attempts to negotiate not only her dueling identities, but also her sympathies, which extend not only to the undoubtedly wronged Native cultures and people whom she encounters, but also to her archaeologist colleagues and to her own white, working class/farmer father, family and compatriots.

The impetus for the book is a local controversy involving an approximately 1,000 year-old platform mound on Trempeauleau mountain, a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, within the town limits. The controversy ensues when an archaeologist from the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center indicates his intention/desire to preserve the mound as a tourist site, for possible inclusion in a regional heritage trail.

Although the state of Wisconsin and this particular area of the Upper Mississippi has been and is the site of thousands of other mounds - conical, linear, and effigy mounds - the existence of this particular mound, although surveyed and photographed during an early period of white settlement, had been largely overlooked by whites in the area. While the conical, linear and effigy mounds (many preserved at Effigy Mound National Monument) are believed to have been created for burial and other purposes by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Indians who live in the area today, the platform mound was probably created as a ceremonial mound for sun-worship and other ceremonies by members of what is now called the Middle Mississippian culture. (As presented in this book, present-day Native groups seem to agree with the archaeologists’ assessment.) This culture was based further south, in Cahokia, Illinois, and Trempeauleau may have been an outpost of that civilization.

Buried Indians, though, becomes much more than a book about an archaeological controversy. As she pursues the topic through interviews, casual conversations, personal reflections and archival research, McMillin bumps up against many other issues.

Among them is the controversy over the town’s high school mascot. (This is, of course, an issue that surfaces intermittently on the national stage as well.) McMillin explores the paradox that, although historically whites were intent on removing Native people, they have deliberately retained the memory of Indians through mascot names (Redmen, Braves, Redskins, and so forth) and place names (there must be tens of thousands of them, including the names of states from Massachusetts to Alaska). McMillin concludes that what whites really want to obliterate at this point (now that we have killed and/or removed so many Indian people and destroyed so much of Indian culture) is not the memory of the Indians themselves, but rather the memory of the role we played in their decimation. She uncovers a paper trail of reimagined history that, for example, portrays Native people “disappearing into the mist” rather than being rounded up and shipped away on cattle cars as was actually the case in this area. Meanwhile, whites appropriated selected aspects of Indian culture, often in stereotype – i.e. the brave or savage Indian warrior - casting themselves as legitimate heirs to Native ways and, through Indian place names, to the land and its bounty.

Their feelings of remorse and guilt show up clearly in McMillin’s account, sometimes, though not always, spilling over into defensiveness. It’s clear that the whites of the town – small farmers who are proud of their hard work and survival through hard times – also feel somewhat victimized or belittled by people they view as elites from the outside, personified in this book by archaeologists, who don’t understand them and don’t know the land as they do. (Says one town father: “If there was [a mound] up there we would’ve known about it.”)

And so it goes in a heterogeneous, mobile society. These stories of conflict and removal – though on a much smaller and considerably less gruesome scale than the Indian removals - are apparent all over these days, from the immigration conflicts in Prince William County, Virginia, to gentrification/integration in places like Harlem. As people grouped according to various identities, we all too often place ourselves in opposition to other groups, to the ultimate detriment of all. In this regard McMillin’s sincere attempt to hear all sides of the story stands out as exemplary.

By the end of the book, the platform mound itself remains officially unpreserved, although today (in 2008) I found it listed as a federally protected mound by the group Protect Sacred Sites Indigenous People, One Nation. The author, through her investigations and her family’s involvement with them, manages to foster a slow recognition of some of these issues among her family members– including some of the older “town fathers” and a sister, a schoolteacher who ultimately incorporates some Indian history into her curriculum.

McMillin, Laurie Hovell. Buried Indians: Digging Up the Past in a Midwestern Town is part of The University of Wisconsin Press' "Wisconsin Land and Life" series. It was published in 2006.

Here's an interesting twist on this issue, a group of Sioux in North Dakota who would like to see the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux retain its nickname. The original article is from the New York Times, December 9, 2009: In Twist, Tribe Fights for College Nickname.

And another update: Fighting Sioux Nickname Issue Remains Unsettled, this one from January 16, 2010.

Wikipedia has a summary of the University of North Dakota nickname controversy; as of November, 2015, the new nickname is the "Fighting Hawks."


  1. Dear Blogger,
    Thank you for this most recent (long-overdue) post.
    It puts me in mind of Henry David Thoreau - probably because I have just finished David M. Robinson's excellent "Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism" (Cornell U. Press, 2004).
    Many of us probably have "warm fuzzy" feelings about Thoreau - whether we admire his refusal to pay taxes in a slave antion, or credit him as the father of "ecology." However, like the relationship of the anthropologist you describe as regards the indigenous people and her own ancestors, so Thoreau's intentions can be questioned, or at least seen as complex.
    Despite the fact that he was a champion of "the Wild," and admired Native people, he was also, typical of his time, in favor of American expansion. Robinson writes: "Even though Thoreau's deep interest in and sympathy with the culture of the American Indians is a matter of record, his implicit endorsement of the ideology of 'manifest destiny'...indicates the limits of his critical awareness of the oppressive and destructive nature of America's western imperialism."
    The destruction of Native cultures was criminal; the existence of the U.S. brought us Thoreau, a great thinker, writer, and man of science.
    Thanks to the blogger, for another thought-provoking essay.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Tullan.
    It seems that this complex set of attitudes about American Indians was/is not uncommon!
    I guess it's a part of the human experience that events (famine, drought, ecological collapse, persecution, etc.) often cause one group of people to displace (or downright eliminate) another. People in these circumstances are thinking mostly of their own survival.
    Idealizing the displaced on the one hand and denigrating them on the other are two ways of putting them neatly away, out of the realm of actual, concrete human interactions, so that we don't have to deal with them as we might with someone who is part of our own sphere, and so that we can lessen our own feelings of guilt.
    Of course, it's easier to idealize them once they're all but gone, or at least defenseless.
    They were savages first, and noble savages only later.
    It would be interesting to learn about what, if any, interactions Thoreau may have had with Native people.