Link: Wisconsin effigy mound sites open to public http://www.wisconsinstories.org/2001season/native/native_makethejourney.html
Skunk Hill stirs souls:
Indians concerned with Wood County's ski hill
Susan Lampert Smith
Wisconsin State Journal
ARPIN - There's a restless energy in the woods at the end of autumn. Rustling noises, movement just seen out of the corner of the eye. Is it a falling leaf, a busy chipmunk, or the spirits, risen to walk among us?
The woods of Skunk Hill are sacred to at least four Wisconsin Indian tribes and home to two known native burial grounds. And if the spirits here are restless this autumn, it may be because they've had a lot of visitors.
At the end of September, a team of corpse sniffing dogs combed the hill looking for remains outside the two known graveyards. The dogs, owned by Michigan trainer Sandra Anderson, have searched for bodies at sites ranging from Gettysburg to ground zero, and have been credited with solving several gruesome murders.
Jeff Lindow, of nearby Chili, who teaches about the history of the hill, hired Anderson, but kept her visit secret from Wood County, which owns the hill, the state, and tribal officials.
By the time the dogs left Skunk Hill, between 200 and 300 pink flags were waving, each marking where a dog had a "hit" indicating human remains.
And that wasn't the end of the visitors. Three days later, alerted by an article in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, Leslie Eisenberg of the state archaeologist's office arrived, and was horrified to find flags stuck into known graves in the "Indian Bill" and "John Ne-We" cemeteries on the hill.
"You should have seen my face," said Eisenberg, who pulled the flags out of the graves. She also investigated other "hits" outside the cemeteries, putting probes into the soil and finding just a few inches of dirt before she hit bedrock, much too shallow for graves. State Archaeologist Bob Birmingham, who did an earlier survey of burial sites on the hill, was skeptical, to say the least.
"It is just ludicrous," he said. "That many graves would make it the biggest Native American cemetery in the Upper Midwest."
Wood County, which owns the property as part of its Powers Bluff County Park, hadn't been informed of the search ahead of time. Neither had the Prairie Band Potawatomi or the Ho-Chunk Nation, which both have historical ties to the hill. Nettie Kingsley, Ho-Chunk Historical officer, called the search "underhanded" and Birmingham fired off letters saying that future searches need permits from the county and state.
On the other hand, even Eisenberg says that Anderson, the dog handler, is well respected in the field of forensic archeology. Anderson herself said that people misunderstand the idea of "grave," envisioning a modern idea of "a body in a coffin in the ground." Many native people didn't bury their dead underground until Christian missionaries ordered them to. Instead, they put dead bodies in trees, or sat them on the ground until they disintegrated. So the idea of finding "scattered remains" over a wide area isn't unbelievable.
But Anderson stressed that the dogs' strongest indications were around the perimeters of the cemeteries, indicating there may be intact bodies buried outside the walls.
So what to make of all this?
One explanation is historical. The hill was home to native people, especially Potawatomi and Ho Chunk, until the county took the land for unpaid taxes in the 1930s. Its woods teem with rare plants used in traditional medicine, some likely transplanted from hundreds of miles from here. And the hill was where Chippewa, Menominee, Potawatomi and Ho Chunk people could practice their religion long after it was stamped out on the reservations.
The second is political. Local Indians who descended from the Skunk Hill group have long felt ignored and insulted by the county. Relations reached rock bottom in the late winter of 2001, when the county went ahead with cutting trees along its ski hill on the bluff before an archaeological survey of historically sensitive areas could be finished. The Prairie Band Potawatomi sued the county.
Things have improved since then, with the county, tribes and state working out an agreement to set aside 80 of the most sensitive acres as part of a National Historic Register site. But this didn't please everyone; some feel a ski hill isn't compatible with such a historical and sacred site. They'd like to see the entire hill as a historical site, with an interpretive center to teach native history, religion, and medicine. More graves would support this view. But Carol Brown, a member of the Lac du Flambeau band of Chippewa and an attorney for the Prairie Band Potawatomi, says that arguing about graves is missing the point.
"Just because there isn't a burial doesn't mean it's not significant," she said. "The hill is important for its religious significance, for its medicine. We need to come to a broader recognition of what this hill means to the Chippewa, the Ho Chunk, the Potawatomi and the Menominee."
Anderson, whose dogs found those suspicious sites scattered through the woods, agreed.
"I'm very surprised this hill is being used as a recreational site," she said. "If Skunk Hill were in Gettysburg, it would be on a map as an important historical place to visit. I hope people in the area would embrace it and use it as a learning opportunity. It's a pearl."
And the other reason people get so upset about Skunk Hill? It's probably spiritual. Lindow, who hired Anderson, remembered the elders as describing the cut trees as "ancestors" and he was intrigued to see the dogs barking and jumping on some of the hills' large trees.
"The roots would pull up the disintegrating human remains, and they would move up the xylem and phloem into the tree," he said, thus making the tree into literal "ancestors." (Anderson says the smell of nearby remains was likely just absorbed by the wood.)
Attorney Brown has also felt the spiritual power of the hill. In June 2001, after a long meeting in which the Potawatomi and Wood County came to a temporary agreement about the hill, she visited with a trio of Potawatomi elders. An intense summer thunderstorm blew in from the west, roaring over the hill and uprooting large trees.
"It was so scary," Brown remembered. "When the trees started falling, I literally dove under a picnic table."
She was chagrined to see the elders standing stoically, while "here I was, their great warrior woman attorney," hiding under the table. The elders told her, "the spirits are now giving their opinion" on the agreement. The spirits have stronger opinions than most of Brown's clients.
"I would hate to see them when they're angry."
Traditions survived at Indians' Skunk Hill
By Dennis McCann
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sept. 10, 2002
Arpin - It is one hill with two names that are largely interchangeable but I'm going with the old one.
The newer name, Powers Bluff, is fine as far as it goes but it could be anything, a subdivision or a motor court as easily as a park on a hill with a past worth preserving. So Skunk Hill - the name used by the Indian people who lived here and for decades viewed this place as sacred (as their descendants do yet today) - it is.
"Skunk Hill," said Bob Birmingham, a State Historical Society archaeologist, "somehow sounds historic."
And Skunk Hill, a historic place long before anyone took pains to make it official, is now officially a historic place. In July, 80 acres of rocky hillside in rural Wood County, part of a county park used by sledders, hikers and skiers, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, an action that both recognizes Skunk Hill's cultural importance to American Indians and offers some measure of protection against intrusive change or development.
Both are important because, Birmingham said, "This is not just another Indian village."
A spiritual place What it was instead was a ceremonial community, a place where Indian culture and traditions were kept alive at a time when official government policy was to suppress such practices as part of an effort to assimilate Indian people into the larger white society. So it was appropriate, then, that when the hill was finally listed on the national register, American Indians came with gifts - a ceremonial shirt for Birmingham, a traditional blanket and more - that served not only as thanks, but also as evidence that old traditions had indeed survived.
While Indian communities in Wisconsin can be traced back for thousands of years, Skunk Hill, rocky and rather distant from important waterways, did not become an important habitation site for American Indians until the early part of the last century. It was then that parts of the south slope became home to a group of Prairie Band Potawatomi - descendants of a Wisconsin community that had been relocated to Kansas - who established a settlement that was also joined by Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Menominee people. The Skunk Hill settlement quickly became a center for the practice of ceremonies such as the Dream Dance, Medicine Society and other traditional activities. There were other "cultural communities" in Wisconsin, Birmingham said, but Skunk Hill was the most important.
It was said that some Indians from other states would take the train to Arpin, the nearest community with a depot and then make their way to Skunk Hill for ceremonial occasions.
According to the petition seeking listing on the national register, as activities such as the Dream Dance, and even Indian languages, were suppressed on established reservations, unofficial communities like the one at Skunk Hill were places where the government's assimilation policies were powerless.
Outside U.S. authority
"Communities like Skunk Hill, largely beyond federal authority, functioned as places where traditional values, practices, languages and ceremonials could be shared, preserved and celebrated."
While some American Indians had used the hill in the late 1800s, the first Potawatomi to leave Kansas and go to Skunk Hill arrived about 1905, after loggers had had their way with it and left the area. (Ironically, the push to list the hill on the national register intensified recently when preservationists objected to the cutting of trees on one side of Skunk Hill and to plans for more forestry there.) Some of the Kansas Potawatomi, who had grown increasingly unhappy with repressive policies on their reservation, acquired land on Skunk Hill and by 1910 the U.S. census found nearly 100 Indians living in the Town of Arpin.
While it hardly prospered, the community survived on hunting, gathering, gardening, by working at area farms or selling crafts such as baskets and beadwork. On ceremonial occasions, the Dream Dance would be conducted in circular dance rings, while the Medicine Society, a curing and healing society, would meet in a traditional wigwam-like structure called a Medicine Lodge.
The spiritual leader and spokesman at Skunk Hill, Birmingham's research indicated, was a man named White Pigeon, a Ho-Chunk who had been removed from Wisconsin to Nebraska in the late 19th century but who walked back to Wisconsin to live.
White Pigeon is buried on Skunk Hill, as are a number of other former residents in several cemeteries that are still marked by rocks positioned in a circle. Disease was one of several reasons the community dwindled; the influenza epidemic of 1918 took many lives.
Historical marker planned
By 1928 fewer than 20 people were living on or near Skunk Hill and a few years later the ceremonial village was abandoned. The last spiritual leader was John Nuwi, who was described as a gifted orator and guardian of the sacred drums of the Dream Dance. One of the cemeteries at Skunk Hill is named for him.
Birmingham said plans are under way to erect a historical marker telling of Skunk Hill's importance not only in Indian history but in America's story, as well. And preservationists will continue to meet with Wood County parks officials to determine future management of the site.
But the historical designation approved in July should help to avoid more headlines like that one that appeared in the Potawatomi Traveling Times when the logging controversy arose in 2001.
"The Hill Weeps," the headline declared. No more.
Powers Bluff County Park, site of Skunk Hill, is on Bluff Drive, one mile west of County E in the town of Arpin, about midway between Wisconsin Rapids and Marshfield.
Skunk Hill Honor Hailed
Indians Applaud as Bluff is Designated a State Historic Site
Wisconsin State Journal
April 13, 2002
Friday was a day of promise for people who love Skunk Hill.
Generations after their ancestors lived and danced and died there, they applauded as a state board recognized the historic value of the rocky bluff in Wood County.
Long sacred to American Indians, the site was named Friday as a Wisconsin historic site and nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. "The historical significance is that this was a ceremonial community," said Robert Birmingham, the state archaeologist who, with backing from the tribes and Wood County, sought the designation.
Nearly 75 people, many of them from the Ho-Chunk Nation and Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, crowded into a meeting room and spilled into a hallway at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Some of them have ancestors buried on Skunk Hill, which was part of the cultural history of at least four tribes before it was seized for back taxes in the 1930s.
"It was a melting pot for all of our people," said Nettie Kingsley of Wisconsin Rapids, a researcher for the Ho-Chunk.
Skunk Hill's long history turned ugly in the last few years. Now part of Powers Bluff County Park, it's a popular site for winter sports, and county officials at one point proposed logging 1,500 trees. About 40 trees were cut a year ago despite what the tribes thought was a promise to wait for an archaeological survey.
When that survey was done, it found -- as the tribal elders said it would -- remnants of dance circles and a village of bark and log cabins. It found the sugarbush where the Indians made maple syrup. It documented several dozen graves in two cemeteries.
One of those belonged to White Pigeon, a community leader said to be buried with his horse. He was the father of Carol Snowball, 73, who traveled from Wisconsin Rapids for Friday's meeting. For her, Skunk Hill was a family place.
For others, the hill was a gathering place for cultural ceremonies like the dream dance, also called the big drum, Birmingham said. Indians were persecuted elsewhere for their religious practices, he said, so they gathered at Skunk Hill.
After hearing from Birmingham, tribal members and Wood County officials, the Historic Preservation Review Board voted unanimously to nominate the site to the national register. National approval probably will come by early summer.
The land can remain a public park in recreational use, Birmingham said, and neither the state nor the federal government controls it. There is a review process if activities are proposed that would disturb the site.
"In cases like this, it's the recognition as a historic site that really does the job," he said.
Ronald Arendt, park administrator for Wood County, said the designation will help with long-range planning for the area.
Tribal members described the nomination as a first step toward working with their Wood County neighbors on the future of Skunk Hill.
Ho-Chunk say hill is rich in Indian history
Associated Press May 19, 2001
A court-protected hill in a Wood County park is sacred and filled with the spirits of ancestors who lived, worshiped and died there, Ho-Chunk heritage
American Indians are attempting to block any further development at Skunk Hill in Powers Bluff Park near Arpin because of its history.
Wood County has plans to construct a new tow line for a winter tubing run at the hill.
But, the Potawatomi Nation recently obtained a court order temporarily blocking any activity at Skunk Hill.
The county has agreed not to do anything at Powers Bluff Park until the State Historical Society completes a preliminary review.
"Nobody in their right mind proposes developing an area that is sacred," said Dave Manthey, a member of Concerned Citizens for Powers Bluff.
The land around the hill once was owned by four Indian women who lost the property due to delinquent taxes, said Brian Snowball, a member of Descendants of Powers Bluff.
Native Americans traveled long distances to come to Skunk Hill for ceremonies and celebrations, Snowball said. When someone died, they often buried them there rather than carry them back to their homes, he added.
Wood County parks director Ron Arendt said the county has been sensitive to the Indian heritage when making plans for the tow line. "The State Historical Society has cooperated with Wood County. They are using technical electronic device to check the ground," he said. Arendt said the 160-acre park has actually protected the hill from development. The property was deeded for recreational purposes in 1936, he said.
Larry Garvin, executive director of the Ho-Chunk preservation department, said they still have ties to the hill even though it's county land.
Wood County's Burial Battleground
Tree clearing on hill cuts
Skunk Hill safe from logging for now.
Park logging plan runs into opposition
Wood County residents say move would endanger woods
By Carrie Antlfinger
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 11, 2000
Since Wood County officials announced in January that they would seek bids to commercially log 1,500 trees at Powers Bluff Park, opposition groups have formed, petitions protesting the move have been circulated and new inspections of the area have been scheduled.
The logging plan would affect about 20% of the trees in up to 45 acres of the 160-acre park, also known as Skunk Hill, near Arpin. Officials say the cut is part of normal park management and would remove unhealthy trees and promote diversity.
But after local residents, American Indians and archaeologists voiced concern, officials postponed the cut until fall after new studies of the siteare completed.
Dave Manthey, who raises gladioluses and organic asparagus, led a protest petition drive that collected more than 2,500 signatures.
"As this is a healthy woods," Manthey said, "why not study it for its health versus potentially allowing oak wilt (disease) to enter the woods."
He said a cut that large would also kill many wildflowers and invite invasive plants. "I wonder why simple arborist's work has not been done in the park," he added.
Robert Freckmann, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, agreed, saying he didn't know of any ecological reason for the logging.
"If you open up the woods then you will have light coming through and have more aggressive plants coming up in the summer, and they will replace this great variety of spring flowering plants," Freckmann said.
But Steve Grant, a state Department of Natural Resources forester, said the extra light will not upset the biological balance. Existing plants "will tolerate a very intensive management before a change will take place," Grant said.
The area also has a rich Indian history.
Robert Birmingham, a State Historical Society archaeologist in Madison, said the park is a former home to Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk tribes, among others.
"Anything that goes on in the area of the community could potentially affect remains of the community and certainly could disrupt any burials," Birmingham said. He said there were two known dance rings, two marked burial sites and depressions where houses used to be.
"We're proposing to help organize the information and make a base map of the area detailing the cultural features as a useful starting place as to what should be done in the park area," he added.
Birmingham said it's important to designate burial areas because the state must protect them. The Historical Society is also working to have the area added to a national registry of historical sites.
Mel Massa, a spokesman for the newly formed Friends of Powers Bluff and Environs, is opposed to the logging as well and said the cut will take out more than just the dying trees.
"We have walked extensively through there, and there are a lot of healthy trees that are marked to be cut," Massa said.
The Wood County Parks and Forestry Committee agreed to the delay to meet with concerned groups and find a compromise, said Ronald C. Arendt, Head of the Wood County Parks Department.
Meanwhile, the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Species will determine whether there are endangered plants on the site, and three University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students will survey the plant life.
The archaeological searches should be complete by early summer, Birmingham said.
Responding to concern about the safety of surrounding trees that may be destroyed by the logging process, Pete Hilgers, replacement forester for Kretz Lumber in Antigo, which submitted the high bid for the wood products, said they would take every precaution not to disturb surrounding trees.
Indian graves protected at new park
April 19, 2001
WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. Tribal elders, Wood County officials and a state archaeologist walked through Powers Bluff Park, sharing information that helps document an American Indian cemetery in the area, officials say.
A study is under way on the location of gravesites, so that park development doesn't damage them.
"A number of elders came, provided varied information and shared pictures," said Robert Birmingham, State Historical Society archaeologist.
"We had some great information. . . . It helps immeasurably to confirm a lot of the placements of buildings and cemeteries on the hill," he said.
The elders were able to confirm the John Ne-Wee Cemetery at Powers Bluff was a true burial site, Birmingham said.
There previously had been discussions that the cemetery did not contain graves. Pictures confirmed the site was used as a cemetery, although there are indications the road truncated it, Birmingham said.
A lot of knowledge was shared during the meeting, said Lance Pliml, Wood County Parks and Forestry Committee chairman.
"Overall, I would say it was an amicable meeting."
Pliml said he and Ron Arendt, parks administrator, were able to give tribal members a clearer understanding of what the county would like to do at the park.
The county does not want to damage any sacred sites, he said.
The county will not proceed with any work at the park until Birmingham completes his study of the park area in the next couple of weeks, Pliml said.
The area includes a recreational tubing hill and the area along it, where about 40 trees were cut last month.
Representatives of a group called Descendants of Powers Bluff said they were pleased Pliml and Arendt participated in the recent meeting.
But they were cautious about the county's commitment to wait for Birmingham to complete his work before moving forward with tubing-area expansion plans.
Brian Snowball, a representative of the descendants, said the cutting of trees last month has hurt tribal members' ability to trust the county.
"Once you lose trust in somebody, it's hard to get it back," Snowball said. "If they said it, hopefully they'll stand by it."
The tribal members will continue to try and work with the county to come up with an acceptable solution for the park, Snowball said.
"It's a very spiritual issue among the Native Americans," he said.