Respect for Burial Sites of the Native Americans
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Odawa historian and archivist Eric Hemenway notes that although burial practices varied from tribe to tribe, "caretaking of the dead is something all tribes consider sacred." In his 2017 article, Hemenway writes that the War of 1812 (in which most Native Americans sided with the British) was particularly stressful to Odawa tribal members because many grave sites were desecrated by American soldiers. He writes that Odawa Chief Blackbird stated in 1813, "'Brother, they did not allow our dead to rest. They dug up their graves, and the bones of our ancestors were thrown away and we could never find them to return them to the ground.'" Blackbird particularly complained about events in Chicago and St. Joseph, when the "Big Knives" (American soldiers) not only destroyed their corn crop, but dug up ancestral graves and disposed of the bones so that the tribe members could not recover them and return them to their original sites of interment.
This deeply rooted sentiment surrounding tribal burial sites was explained by Odawa tribal member Victor Kishigo in responding to Michigan archaeologists who argued that the removal and scientific examination of the skeletal remains of Native Americans provide insight about people of the past and the dynamics of their population. Historian Charles Cleland includes Kishigo's 1990 reply to this viewpoint in his book Rites of Conquest: The History and Culture of Michigan's Native Americans:
The bones of our dead are not archaeological specimens to be dug up and
kept on museum shelves. These bones are the essence of our ancestors. They
are the union of our people to the land for which we were created. These burials
represent our link with the past. It is our belief that once a body has been committed
to the ground in a religious ceremony, it should be respected and left in place by
all people. ...
Kishigo also emphasized that the historical understanding sought by archaeologists in examining the remains of indigenous people can be distinguished from the connection to the past sought by tribal members. "'Our history comes to us from our grandfathers and grandmothers. We know our history. The history you say is ours has very little meaning for us. ... They are the bodies of our ancestors. We have the responsibility to see that they are not dug up and that if they are, that they will be reburied.'" Kishigo's words reflect the sentiment observed by Hemenway, above.
Cleland also notes the "strong and bitter recollections" of the Chippewa /Ojibwe tribal members in the Sault Ste. Marie (MI) area, who objected to the construction of a U.S. fort on tribal land around 1820, as the proposed location of this structure was at their traditional cemetery upon a knoll. Ft. Brady was built despite the protests of local tribal members. Approximately 50 years later, soil was needed as fill between the buildings, which led to the desecration of the indigenous raised burial sites there. Contemporary news stories featured photographs of soldiers posing with human skulls and other relics, which still stirs resentment among the Chippewa people.
A positive example of respect for Native American burial grounds can be seen near the Bay Hills Indian Community in Brimley, MI., where a historically significant graveyard marks the Battle of Iroquois Point. In June, 1662, hundred of invading Iroquois attacked the local Chippewa, seeking a trade monopoly in the Great Lakes. The subsequent defeat of the Iroquois was a turning point in the war prone seventeenth century, as stability was established in the region. After the battle, the Chippewa braves who had been killed in the battle were buried in a mass grave. Over three and a half centuries later, this burial site, which is separated from Lake Superior's shoreline by a bluff, is being threatened by extreme erosion along the Great Lakes. (The existence of the graves in this location has been confirmed by ground-penetrating radar; some are as shallow as three feet, and others are only thirty feet from the shore.) Elected officials from Michigan sought a solution, and consequently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been actively seeking solutions to safeguard this site.
Fullersburg, IL also has a rich history, as the Potawatomi village of Sauganakka located here was the largest in DuPage County. In 1800, approximately 6,000 Potawatomi lived in about 50 villages around the lower part of Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to St. Joseph, and the waterways west of Chicago were used for trade and transportation. At that time, Salt Creek was called "Wewanippissee," which means "the pretty little river." Numerous primary sources indicate that indigenous burial mounds exist and/or existed in the area around Salt Creek, near the historic Graue Mill and Dam. (See the "For You" section of this site.) The Scharf map is but one source that indicates the presence of this type of grave in the area. Often, such mounds were ceremonial in nature and/or reserved for tribal chiefs, and not all Native American remains were placed in mounds. The sheer size of this village suggests that numerous burial sites still could be discovered, as Fullersburg Forest Preserve (which owns the mill, dam and a large tract of wooded land) is largely undeveloped.
A plan has been formulated by a DuPage County organization to remove the Graue Mill Dam and to revise certain areas of Salt Creek for approximately one mile above the dam in forest preserve land. This complex project raises concerns about the potential disturbance of Native American burial grounds. Questions can logically be asked about the final resting place of the indigenous people who lived (and died) by the creek for centuries. Could respectful archaeological surveying and modern technology (as was employed at Bay Hills, above) ensure that indigenous burial sites here are treated with proper care? Fullersburg Historic Foundation hopes that is the case, and strongly feels that the remains of all Native American people should be treated with dignity and well-deserved respect.
Sue Devick, M.A.