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New life for sacred burial mound in Northland?

A massive, ancient burial mound in northern Minnesota, closed to the public eight years ago, may once again welcome visitors to learn about the sacred site.

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The Minnesota Historical Society is considering reopening Grand Mound eight years after it closed the site. The site, west of International Falls, contains five burial mounds. The historical society closed the site in 2007, partly because of concerns about a burial site being used as a tourist attraction. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

A massive, ancient burial mound in northern Minnesota, closed to the public eight years ago, may once again welcome visitors to learn about the sacred site.
Grand Mound, located along the Rainy River about 15 miles southwest of International Falls, is considered the largest prehistoric structure in the Upper Midwest. After more than 30 years as a state historic site, access to the mound was blocked in 2007 amid concerns about treating a burial site as a tourist attraction.
However, the thinking has changed, and the Minnesota Historical Society now has the backing of its Indian Advisory Committee to reopen Grand Mound to the public.
“I think the time has come for it again,” said Indian Advisory Committee member Jim Jones, who also works as the cultural resources director for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.
The concern about Grand Mound as a burial ground still exists, Jones said, but there’s growing interest in using the site - with the involvement of Minnesota’s Native American communities and possibly in conjunction with a historical center at burial mounds across the river in Ontario - to tell the story of the people who built the mounds and lived in the area centuries ago.
The Minnesota Historical Society also is receiving a push to reopen the site from city and county officials who didn’t want it closed in the first place, arguing that the historical society hasn’t been equitable in its treatment of Grand Mound compared to other historical sites because of its location on the northern border.
The state put money into a “beautiful building” at Grand Mound only to close that building a few decades later, Koochiching County Commissioner Wade Pavleck said.
“If that facility were south - southern Minnesota, in the metro area, even south of Highway 2 - it would never have been closed,” Pavleck said.
International Falls and Koochiching County officials requested an update on Grand Mound’s status last year, stating in a letter that they’re “very concerned as to the future plans of the Minnesota Historical Society regarding the Grand Mound facility and grounds.”

Meeting place for centuries

Slated to reopen in the next few years, the goal for Grand Mound is to “have a place where people can experience the Rainy River and the region and learn more about the people who lived there more than 5,000 years ago,” said Ben Leonard, Minnesota Historical Society manager of community outreach and partnerships.
The site includes five burial mounds. Grand Mound is the largest, standing 25 feet tall and measuring 100 feet wide by 140 feet long, according to the state historical society.
“It’s the only site of its type in the U.S.,” said Ed Oerichbauer, executive director of the Koochiching County Historical Society.
In its potential reopening of Grand Mound, the historical society wants to ensure the site is safe and preserved, and is culturally appropriate, Leonard said.
Grand Mound’s location at the confluence of the Big Fork and Rainy rivers was a meeting place for centuries. Grand Mound and Manitou Mounds, across the Rainy River in Ontario, both were created by a group now called the Laurel Indians when an international border didn’t cut in between.
“Indigenous peoples from the region converged on this spot where the great sturgeon spawned. Here they set up camps to trade, socialize, feast and conduct ceremonies. And here they buried their dead,” stated a 2007 Minnesota Historical Society report to the state Legislature.
The Laurel Indians’ use of the location dates back to about 200 BC. After the Laurel Indians - of which much remains unknown - the site was used by the Blackduck people. It’s estimated Grand Mound was created and used from about 200 BC to 1400 AD.
A man named Fred Smith purchased the Grand Mound property in 1930 to protect it from looting. The land was sold to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1971, and the historical society built an interpretive center at the site in 1975, but it mothballed the building in the fall of 2002 amid budget cuts. The trails around the mound then were permanently closed in 2007 amid concerns about visitors at the sacred site.
“Our consultations with American Indian elders have convinced us of the appropriateness of that action. We believe that the site’s designation as a burial ground supersedes all other uses,” the 2007 report stated.
In 2011, Grand Mound was named a National Historic Landmark.
There were valid reasons to close the site in the previous decade, Leonard said, but the situation has now changed.
“We haven’t forgotten about Grand Mound,” Leonard said.
Leonard said he hasn’t heard the concerns cited in 2007 raised in the current discussions about reopening Grand Mound. The concerns now are how Grand Mound’s history will be told, he said.

Cross-border cooperation

Across the river in Ontario, the Rainy River First Nations operate the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre at Manitou Mounds. The center includes an aquarium, conservation lab, interpretive center and restaurant. Leonard visited that site last year and said he’s looking forward to working more with Rainy River First Nations as the process to reopen Grand Mound unfolds.
Local officials would like to tie in with Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung to create a cultural tourism center on both sides of the international border that will remind visitors of the people who lived there thousands years ago, Oerichbauer said.
The Minnesota Historical Society’s Indian Advisory Committee is planning a meeting in May with Rainy River First Nations leaders to take part in the annual fish fry at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung and discuss plans for and possible cooperation between the two sites, Jones said.
A reopened Grand Mound site needs to tell the story of the place, combining the spiritual significance with the archeology, and have a Native American component to it, Jones said.
“What does Grand Mound represent? And there’s a cultural significance to it,” he said.
It should offer educational opportunities, Jones said, adding, “people are screaming for it.” It could provide a place for students to learn, he said - not just history but also math and science, using nature and the rivers.
City, county and First Nations officials met with Minnesota Historical Society staff in October to discuss the potential of reopening the site, and now those officials are waiting to hear a plan from the historical society.
“I hope they don’t shortchange us,” Pavleck said. “My fear is that they’ve left it for so long, they’ll just open the gates to people. That’s not a solution.”
Pavleck said the group would like to see the shuttered Grand Mound building reopened with guides for the site. Oerichbauer said reopening Grand Mound would be good for the preservation of the site, because someone would be actively watching over it.
Several options for reopening Grand Mound have been discussed internally, Leonard said. They range from reopening the entire site, including the building, to a more basic plan of reopening only the trails with interpretive panels along the way.
Once open, Leonard said the site needs to be sustainable. Grand Mound’s closure was partly because of operational costs and low usage. Annual visitor numbers decreased by 77 percent in the decade before the state closed the site, with 1,688 people visiting in 2002, according to the 2007 report.
The historical society doesn’t want to reopen Grand Mound just to close it in a few years because of the decisions that are made today, Leonard said.
It’s going to take promotion of Grand Mound to make people aware that they can visit the site once it’s open, Oerichbauer said. He pointed out that Split Rock Lighthouse probably would have the same number of visitors as Grand Mound if it was located in as remote a location.
“If you do historical interpretation where it happens, you will have to pay the price,” he said.

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