Effigy Mounds building possibly damaged burial grounds - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Effigy Mounds building possibly damaged burial grounds

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HARPERS FERRY (KWWL) -- The National Park Service says Iowa's only national monument, Effigy Mounds, violated national acts by building a boardwalk and maintenance shed on top of what is likely American Indian burial grounds. They say Effigy Mounds did not seek proper approval before doing the project.

Effigy Mounds began constructing a boardwalk and maintenance shed in 2008, but stopped in 2009 after National Park regional reviewers found the monument hadn't filed any of the appropriate paper work or done consultations.

Around 1,400 years ago, American Indians, living in what is now northeast Iowa, built mounds around their buried ancestors.

"The state of Iowa was named for the Ioway people. This was our aboriginal grounds at one time, as well as several of the tribes," Patt Murphy, an Ioway tribe member, said "This is sacred ground. That's probably why there were people buried here,"

Today. the land is Effigy Mounds National Monument, maintained by the National Park Service. The monument now faces controversy with the tribes.

"You're talking about family," Murphy said.

Effigy Mounds built a shed and began building a boardwalk, both either right next to or very possibly right on top of burial grounds. Regional Park Service officials say the project should never have happened.

"Had the appropriate processes have been followed, that trail and that maintenance structure would not have been approved," NPS Midwest Regional Associate Director of Cultural Resources Steve Adams said.

The appropriate processes would have included Effigy Mounds filing paperwork to a cultural resources management team and likely doing consultations. Officials say another problem is professional archaeologists were not present when holes were drilled. Generally they would make sure no artifacts are present or damaged.

For the next three weeks, Park Service archeologists are doing a thorough survey looking for where the mounds are or were. Some of the mounds are still visible as raised land; others have been worn down through agriculture or time.

"What we're doing is a geophysical survey, trying to identify any buried archeological features, remnants of mounds, anything else that might be up here," Archaeologist Steven DeVore said.

The scientists will comb over hundreds of grids with an instrument that measures the magnetic field underground.

"This is basically identified as a non-invasive, non-destructive type survey. We're not digging anything up. We're just looking for changes in the physical properties of the earth," DeVore said.  The crew will also use a few other methods of detection for the project.

Representatives from two tribes, the Upper Sioux and Ioway, are watching the entire process, making sure the grounds aren't disrupted.

"It's very difficult to take the people's word for what is going to happen, and so we come along, just to check on them," Murphy said.

Officials do say what happened here was illegal, though they won't yet say why or how this happened.

"We're still trying to figure that out. We're evaluating that and we don't really know why that occurred," Adams said.

Effigy Mounds Superintendent Phyllis Ewing says they thought they'd filed all necessary forms and stopped construction within minutes of finding out otherwise from regional officials. She says they're very pleased to have the archaeological survey to make sure this doesn't happen again.

The Park Service is now considering taking out the boardwalk, but leaving the concrete pillars in the ground, trying to minimize the damage. Several groups will weigh in, including the public and tribes.

"It was a mistake that they did it. They have apologized. They knew they had done wrong. So our position is the damage is done. It should be left where it is, and go on from there," Murphy said.

The Park Service says it is committed to protecting historic land and will make sure proper procedures get followed in the future.

"It is a complex process, but it is what it is, it's required by law. And we want to make sure we're doing the right thing because ultimately what we're trying to protect is the cultural resources and the natural resources also," Adams said.

That's what the tribes want, respect and protection for ancestors.

"You still honor what's here. We have to take care of our old people. The old ones that are in the spirit world. That's what we're here for," Murphy said.

The National Park Service has made some policy changes as a direct result of the issues at Effigy Mounds. For one, every new project at Effigy Mounds will need to go through the regional office. The Service is also tracking filings from every park to see if anyone is under-filing. Additionally, they're changing the way project applications are processed.

The public is invited to weigh in via email or postal mail. To learn more, click here. Officials say feedback should be limited to comments about the impact of removing structures on the historic properties.

Online Reporter:  Jamie Grey

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