Professor gives speech on local effigy mounds

Historic Whitewater landmark discussed on Sept. 27

By Sidney Birkett

Staff Writer

Sept. 30, 2015

Whitewater is rich in history of Native Americans, in particular the tribes that formed the burial sites that can be seen in the area today.

This history was walked through during a free religion history program, jointly sponsored by the Whitewater Historical Society and the Friends of the Mounds Preserve, at the Whitewater Depot Museum on Sept. 27. Accompanied with this was the introduction of a three-part art project for the museum as well as a guided tour of the effigy mounds.

Michael Guéno, UW-Whitewater assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies, started the presentation.

This coverage was a mixture of standard understandings and ideas to get the closest picture to where the effigy mounds came from and why they were constructed. Spanning from between 4000 B.C.E to around 1200 C.E., the history follows Native American tribes from Louisiana and Florida making their way north, eventually to Wisconsin.

Guéno explained how mound building originated the south with domed burial mounds between 4000 B.C.E and 2000 B.C.E. Mound building eventually spread north up the Mississippi. The early woodland people were the first mound builders in the area, still building mostly cone-shaped mounds over burial crypts.

Eventually, effigy mounds started, and most were constructed between 700 and 1200 CE by groups of tribes that share cultural practices. There were over 15,000 mounds built, many of these being representational effigy mounds, it’s easy to see why they are a big part of Wisconsin’s history.

These effigy mounds take the shape of various creatures from birds and land animals to water spirits. Different from burial mounds, they generally only have one person buried inside, either in the heart or the head of the burial figures, and sometimes they were empty.

Possible reasons for their existence were calendars, spiritual patrons for the buried and family identifiers.

“If I had to guess, there isn’t an answer,” Guéno said. “There is not one answer. When they were built – why they were built – could have been different based upon which group was building.”

What was mostly discussed by Guéno was the idea these effigy mounds are based upon a three-part division of the world, consisting of an overworld, a material world and an underworld. The overworld would hold the birds and flying creatures seen in the effigy mounds. The next group would be four-legged, walking animals on Earth. Underneath would be water spirits, or long-tailed spirits.

The problem with this idea is it’s based off discussion with Native Americans that comes from anthropologists with primarily Christian backgrounds.

“If there’s Heaven, Hell and Earth, surely all people have something similar,” Guéno said, explaining the thinking behind this three-part division system. “There must be an overworld, an underworld and a middle world.”

However, Native American religion is different from western religion, according to Guéno.

Guéno said we could never be sure about the true meaning of the mounds.

“To look at the mounds is to wonder and to ask, ‘Why were they built?’” Guéno said. “Sorry to spoil the ending for you but we don’t know.”

Despite the exact meaning behind the mounds, the program rose awareness of the mounds and highlighted their importance as historical artifacts. This importance was carried over to the next portion of the event, a three-part project by installation artist Grace Ison.

Ison was contacted about the project and is currently working on it.

The first project is the 40 inches by 8 feet plexiglass piece. An image had been drawn depicting what the finished product will look like. It showed native plants with a representation of what the first people in the area looked like and the effigy mounds as well. The second project will be an oak tree, and the third, a mural to tie it all together.

“Like you stepped out of a woods,” Ison said on the mural.

Ison said she expects the first project to be completed around the end of November. The second, over the winter, and the third soon following. Eventually, all pieces will be available to see at the Whitewater Depot Museum, 301 W. Whitewater St.

Following the program was a tour of the effigy mounds led by Kori Oberle. Oberle guided guests through the Whitewater Effigy Mounds Preserve, a 21.5-acre park on the west side of Whitewater, located at 288 S. Indian Mound Parkway. The tour showed guests more than a dozen effigy mounds in the area. The park is open from sunrise to sunset to visitors who wish to visit the mounds.

Guéno enjoyed this first speaking engagement here in Whitewater and hopes for more.

“[The event] was really just to let people know that, hey, there are Indian mounds here in Whitewater, and to hopefully get more of a community engagement to preserve the mounds,” Guéno said. “To take care of them and, well, include them as part of the community. It exists.”

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