© John Staeck 1998 All rights reserved
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This is a copy of a paper read at the American Society for Ethnohistory Meetings in Minneapolis, MN. It is a draft copy without complete citations and bibliography. It is offered here for informational purposes only. If you elect to cite this work please: (1) note that this presentation is not designed to be final copy, (2) note that this presentation is not attempting to use others work without citing (remember, not all citation have been included here, though more are added whenever possible, and (3) this is a work in progress.
The late prehistoric effigy mounds of the Upper Midwest bear silent witness to the formation, manipulation, and evolution of social identities across more than 1000 years. Scholars are sharply divided over our ability to identify the descendants of the mound builders and to interpret the purposes these edifices may have served. Examination of unpublished and published oral traditions of the Ho-Chunk suggest that a strong connection exists between these people, and their cultural beliefs, and the peoples who constructed the tens of thousands of effigy mounds that were once, and in some cases still are, interlaced with the natural landscape.
Between approximately 300 and 1300 AD unknown groups of people constructed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 earthen mounds across the Upper Midwest. In the area of southern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, eastern Iowa, and northern Illinois earth was fashioned into the forms of a limited number of animals, such as bears, birds, canids, deer, elk, and what have been interpreted variably as turtles and panthers but which may more properly be viewed as water spirits. Numerous conical and elongated cigar-like mounds are also common to this cultural manifestations.
Anthropologists, historians, antiquarians, and the public as a whole have speculated on the origins of these mounds and their functions. The extensive work of Paul Radin among the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) revealed that these people claimed to be the authors of the mounds. Indeed, Radin and others suggested that the mounds represented totemic markers for the ancestors of the historically-known Ho-Chunk. Such claims were soundly rejected by archaeologist Warren Wittry, whose strident arguments against these ideas led successive generations of anthropologists to reject the Ho-Chunk-Effigy Mound connection out of hand. The work of Chandler Rowe in attempting to correlate mound shape with Ho-Chunk clans seemed to provide conclusive support for Wittry's position.
Over the past decade or so, however, voices questioning Wittry's dismissal of the Ho-Chunk-Effigy Mound connection have risen. Hall, for example, has re-evaluated effigy mound shape in relation to Ho-Chunk clan symbolism and argued that a close correlation exists. He bases this assessment on his observation that so-called turtle mounds may, in fact, be better viewed as water spirits shapes seen in overview. Further, panther mounds may also be interpreted as water spirit shapes, only seen in profile rather than from above.
On a second line of investigation, Salzer, in his work at the Gottschall site in southwestern Wisconsin, has excellent evidence for the rendering of a Ho-Chunk legend as rock art sometime between 900 and 1000 AD, during the period when effigy mounds were still being constructed. Similarly, work at this site has produced clear evidence that a variety of regional woodland peoples, viz. their material cultural remains, may have participated in ceremonialism associated with the paintings. It is precisely this sort of material diversity that Staeck (1994, in press) has postulated should be present among the predecessors of the Ho-Chunk.
Indeed, given the recent contributions on this topic, it seems likely that at least some of the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk were involved with effigy mound construction and related ceremonialism. Moreover, this ceremonialism and the accompanying community integration and displays very likely played significant roles in organizing and structuring social relations for those people who participated in such things. It is difficult to argue for the presence of ceremonialism and public display in any non-industrialized society not being closely related to such things as individual status, exchange of marriage partners, and alliance formation.
An examination of the Ho-Chunk oral traditions collected by Paul Radin and a close reading of the work of both Paul Radin and Nancie Oestreich Lurie has yielded a number of suggestions. I have argued elsewhere, for example, that the oral traditions of the Ho-Chunk do not reflect an egalitarian ethic nor do they reflect what Service or Fried might define as a band-level social structure. Rather, there are suggestions of hierarchical organization, perhaps including the inheritance of chiefly and spiritual power through both matrilineal and patrilineal avenues, as well as suggestions of a great importance placed on the acquisition of power and reputation by men. Indeed, in many of the oral traditions men seem to acquire status while women inherit it. Radin and Lurie respectively seem to have independently seen many of the same trends, the former having postulated an era of matrilineality and hierarchical behavior for the Ho-Chunk of the distant past. Interestingly, the absence of evidence for such behaviors at effigy mound sites has been used alongside attempts at direct historical methodologies to argue against a Ho-Chunk-Effigy Mound connection. Alternatively, suggestions of hierarchical and perhaps matrifocal behaviors among the Ho-Chunk have been dismissed out of hand, forcing researchers to abandon any attempt at a direct historical approach to interpreting the Ho-Chunk past or the connection between effigy mound behavior and any known Native American population. As we shall see, however, such arguments seem to miss the mark on both the ethnohistorical and archaeological ends.
One dimension of effigy mound behavior that seems key to understanding the place of these constructions within past social systems is the development of a cultural landscape. Although effigy mound sites have been recorded and re-recorded for nearly 150 years, it has only been recently that technological advances have allowed researchers to begin to integrate geophysical data into their investigations. The Ho-Chunk, themselves, for instance, maintain a geographic information system record of known mound sites in Wisconsin while Ramseth and Staeck (1998) have generated a similar database centering around mound sites near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. This location was selected as the study area for this project because of Ho-Chunk oral traditions that place the resting place of two important culture heroes and spirits, Flesh and Spirit (also the maternal nephews of the Water Spirit "Blue Horn" in some accounts) on the or within the bluffs overlooking the aforementioned confluence. Significantly, this area also has a high concentration of effigy mound groups and related Late Woodland sites as well as Upper Mississippian and Mississippian-related sites.
A GIS component was developed as part of the Northeast Iowa Site Interpretation Survey (NISIS, now headquartered at the College of DuPage) that was designed to place the various sites in their geophysical environments. Among the goals of the project was to simply quantify and begin to interpret the placement of effigy mound sites and the later Oneota sites, which many have argued replaced Late Woodland and effigy mound culture bearer sites in this region. Additional goals were predicated upon the distribution of mound sites and included attempts to define clear clusters of mound sites that might mark territories, if such existed, and may have acted as identity signaling devices (e.g. Staeck, 1994, 1996, 1997; Ramseth and Staeck 1998).
In order to accomplish this, site locations were plotted by Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinates atop three-dimensional topographic displays for the region. Waterways were then added to this view in order to examine the geophysical relationship between the sites and their surroundings. Mound groups were then selected for examination through a technique called cumulative viewshed analysis. In effect, this technique allows a researcher to identify how many sites can see and be see from a given point on the terrain. Viewshed analysis was undertaken as a method of exploring what, if any, links might exist between different effigy mound groups.
The creation of the basic maps proved to be very enlightening. First, it was noted that a significant number of effigy mound groups are present atop bluffs or on relatively steep slopes overlooking not only the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, but also several smaller order waterways that have heretofore not been considered as significant parts of the AD 1000 landscape. In effect, the presence of mound clusters on these smaller streams suggests that archaeologists may be missing a portion of the picture in terms of deciphering why mounds were located as they were.
Also of significance, excavations on the terraces beneath some of these bluff top effigy mound groups has yielded evidence for massive late prehistoric era erosion. While we might expect such erosion to be present later in prehistory as a result of Upper Mississippian peoples clearing forest for firewood and their extensive garden plots, it is somewhat surprising to see this amount of soil loss during a time when woodland settlements and garden plots are predicted to have been small. The fact that the erosion occurs primarily on slopes where mounds are located, however, may reflect a practice of clearing trees so that the mounds might be viewed from the river below or, perhaps, from surrounding hilltops. If trees were indeed cleared from around effigy mounds in order to facilitate viewing them, then the mounds can be interpreted as strong markers and mechanisms for signaling identity and beliefs.
Also of significance are the results of the viewshed analysis. First, an examination of the overall pattern of mounds in the region seems to reflect the presence of 7 or more general clusters of effigy mounds. These clusters are:
Along the Mississippi River...
It is difficult to sort these diachronically because of a lack of data regarding their construction and use dates, but stylistically, at least, all are clearly related in a broad sense. Likewise, each of these clusters shares common drainages and associated with blufftop sites. Yet, each cluster seems to be invisible to other clusters, suggesting a cultural or temporal distance. While it is tempting to speculate further on this distribution, little more can be said without dating information.
The Harper's Ferry cluster has proven to be the most complex of the clusters yet identified. Not only did the Harper's Ferry site locality itself once contain at least 89 mounds, but it is situated atop a high bluff overlooking a series of terraces that are among the broadest within this portion of the Mississippi Valley. Prior to the construction of the lock and dam system on the river, these terraces would have overlooked numerous backwater channels and a rich wetland ecosystem ideal for exploitation by broad spectrum foragers who also practiced a little gardening on the side.
Of particular note to us, however, is the viewshed identified for the center of this site. Were a person to stand in the center of this mound group s/he could look up an down the Mississippi River trench and across to the blufflines in Wisconsin. Specifically, at the furthest extent of a person's vision in any direction rests another effigy mound group. That is, if the person to look north, the last thing/she would see would be a mound group, the same to the east, the same to the south and west.
This positioning may be taken two ways: (1) that the Harper's Ferry group was positioned as a link in a visual chain of mound groups, essentially being positioned so that other mounds could be seen, or (2) that the other mound groups were placed so as to be able to see the Harper's Ferry group. These two alternatives were evaluated by examining the number of mound groups that could see each other group through a technique called cumulative viewshed analysis. Although not yet verified statistically, it appears as though the second hypothesis, that mound groups were positioned so as to have a view of the Harper's Ferry mound group, is upheld. No fewer than 5 mound groups have direct views of the Harper's Ferry group, no other group has more than 3 views to it. Moreover, the distance of these other sites, at the maximum extent of vision, suggests that each of the 5 mound groups which can site to the Harper's Ferry group, suggests that these other mounds may have been deliberately positioned so as to be linked to the Harper's Ferry group but to also be at the maximum distance from this spot.
By way of comparison, a similar system has been reported for the Salisbury Plain of England, where it has been argued to reflect competitive displays of identity and power by rival polity leaders (Wheatley 1995). Likewise, each cluster of mounds on the Salisbury Plain seems to reflect the visual identity marking of an individual polity, even though the mounds in each cluster are stylistically and temporally similar. It is possible, though certainly not demonstrated, that a similar process might be reflected in the construction and distribution of Effigy Mounds.
The discussion of mound distribution above articulates well with what we might expect for the ancestors of the historically known Ho-Chunk. The presence of political, social , and ritual complexity associated with effigy mound construction fits nicely with behaviors identified in an examination of Ho-Chunk oral traditions undertaken by the author and with the aforementioned suggestions and hints proffered by Radin and Lurie.
First, the distribution of mounds across the landscape in prominent locations marks these constructions as public devices for conveying ideology and beliefs. As such they are public sacred places much the same way that a medieval cathedral is, the community which understands the symbolism reflected in the architecture interacts with it on a regular basis. Such interaction reinforces cultural beliefs and boundaries. Should an outsider come across the architecture its symbolism, but not its position on the landscape, might escape theviewer. Hence, even though an outsider to effigy mound symbolism might not understand precisely what is being portraryed, he would be well aware that the mounds represented a tangible connection between someone's belief and the land. In a Native American world view this connection may well have both operated on functional and spiritual levels, the former representing a claim to territory and space, the latter representing unknown specific but generally recognizable links between a people and their cultural landscape.
The mounds, their positions, and a hypothesized ranked or hierarchical social structure for the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk also articulate well with Wobst's (1977) discussion of identity signaling. According to Wobst's ideas, as well as subsequent works by Schortman (1989) and Jones (1997), among others (e.g., Carr and Nietzel 1995), identity is projected outward from an individual or group and is primarily aimed at those who are well-versed in the signaler's symbol set but who are not so close as to know the signaler's individual accomplishments and ideas intimately. In effect, identity is being projected outward to people who share the effigy mound ideology or who are well-versed in it but who are not closely associated with the specific group that constructed a specific mound. Indeed, entire mound clusters may reflect precisely this sort of behavior between different social groupings, such as tribes, which are connected to and in competition with one another.
If we now add to this system the notion that within-group competition among the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk was common, especially for men seeking achieved status with which to further their own social positions and careers (Staeck 1994, 1996), then it would seem that effigy mound construction and the public ritual associated with it would provide a viable avenue for such behaviors to be expressed. Indeed, the public display of the mounds coupled with their sacred nature might afford individuals involved in their creation a chance to generate prestige not only in the secular realm, but in the realms of work for the common good and sacred power as well. These latter elements are essential to analyzing the situation because a close reading of Ho-Chunk oral traditions and the ethnohistoric literature reveals a strong Ho-Chunk emphasis on acquisition of spiritual prowess and its use for the good of other Ho-Chunk. The symbolic connection that mound building generates between the symbol (the mound) and the spiritual world in the form of individual spirits and their gifts to the Ho-Chunk would provide the individual who organizes mound construction with avenues to:
(1) demonstrate economic and social influence through the organization and construction of the symbol,
(2) provide for the public good through the rituals and feasting that might accompany mound construction as well as through the production of an enduring spiritual presence on the cultural landscape, and
(3) demonstrate spiritual acuity and ability through the ritual associated with creating a significant spiritual symbol.
In summation, it would seem that there is a good behavioral fit between effigy mounds and the behaviors and ideology represented in Ho-Chunk oral traditions. This supports assertions that the Ho-Chunk, or more precisely their ancestors, were among those who built effigy mound. Given this, it is perhaps past time that we re-evaluate the hypothesized Effigy Mound-Ho-Chunk connection in a systematic and serious way.
Thank you for your time, and thanks especially to Rob for allowing this paper to be presented and Maria for offering to read it. Any errors are the responsibility of the author alone and should not reflect on the hard work of these and other individuals.