Plans emerge for Grand Mound burial site reopening

A plan to reopen Grand Mound, a Native American burial site west of International Falls, to the public may begin to take shape this week. A meeting on Friday between Minnesota Historical Society staff, tribal officials and county officials, among...

A committee has been meeting for the past year to discuss reopening to the public the Native American burial mound named Grand Mound. The site, located west of International Falls, has been closed to the public since 2007. (Minnesota Historical Society photo)

A plan to reopen Grand Mound, a Native American burial site west of International Falls, to the public may begin to take shape this week.

A meeting on Friday between Minnesota Historical Society staff, tribal officials and county officials, among others, is expected to include discussion on the stories that should be told about Grand Mound and discussion about programs offered at the site, which was closed to the public in 2007.

All the options are still on the table at this point, and the Historical Society isn't on a specific timetable to reopen the site, said Ben Leonard, manager of community outreach and partnerships. It would be great if there's consensus at Friday's meeting on a direction for moving forward, but if there isn't, the Grand Mound committee will take more time to discuss it, he said.

"I view this as the Minnesota Historical Society getting married to the community again, and you don't want to just jump into something, so we've got to make sure that we're both comfortable and we're both moving in the same direction and we're both going to benefit from it," Leonard said. "I think the challenge is just making sure that that marriage is going to be successful and viable for the long term. You can't just think about what's expedient for the next six months. You have to think about what it's going to look like in five years or 10 years."

After more than 30 years as a state historic site, Grand Mound was closed to the public amid declining visitorship and concerns about treating a burial site as a tourist attraction. Grand Mound's use dates back to the Laurel Indians in 200 B.C., and it's considered the largest prehistoric structure in the Upper Midwest.


Discussions on reopening the site began last year. After four meetings with a core committee, Leonard discussed an initial plan with the Koochiching County Board, which raised concerns about the proposal to raze the site's existing building. Since then, Leonard said he's continued to have discussions about Grand Mound on a one-on-one basis, traveling to the area every six to eight weeks for meetings. He also provided an update on the reopening during an International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon in September.

"One thing we've heard pretty consistently is that Grand Mound is a really important site, but it's a part of a larger cultural landscape, so there are other places along the Rainy River - like McKinstry Mounds, like Franz Jevne State Park, like Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, which is run by Rainy River First Nations across the river from Franz Jevne State Park - that we want to make sure that we incorporate into the story," Leonard said.

The details on the best way to tell Grand Mound's story to the public still need to be hashed out, whether it's through interpretive panels, guided hikes or other types of programming, he said.

Leonard has also been speaking with educators in the region about their needs for the site. The site's building has a classroom, but education and museums have changed since the building was constructed in the 1970s, Leonard said. He added that it was "eye opening" to hear that educators want students outside engaging with the site rather than using the site's classroom because teachers can provide lessons in their own classrooms before and after visiting. Leonard said the committee needs to find ways to balance existing facilities such as schools with accommodations for people while they're at Grand Mound.

The Historical Society also is working with other organizations in the region, including Voyageurs National Park and Rainy River Community College, to provide access to the site and interpretation of Grand Mound's history, along with outreach and local partnerships, he said.

"There's a lot of great organizations and institutions that are already doing great things up there. If we're talking about tourism, Voyageurs National Park is the obvious driver, so how can we work together with Voyageurs National Park or Rainy River Community College so we can leverage our assets and leverage our resources to take the parts we both do well and do even better together. That, to me, is the most exciting part of what we're talking about now," he said,

The Historical Society also is considering having a staff member at Grand Mound to focus on outreach in the region, which is a key part of the reopening, Leonard said.

Leonard also has been visiting the Grand Mound site, where Minnesota Department of Corrections crews from Togo have been working to clear overgrown brush. Leonard and a crew were most recently on the site removing brush in November. Closed for nearly a decade, the brush has quickly grown, and the work has transformed the site, including freeing the clearing from overgrowth where the mound is located, Leonard said. The mound is believed to be in the shape of a muskrat, which matches the Native American earth diver creation story, and Leonard said the mound's muskrat tail can now be seen.

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