© John Staeck 1998 All rights reserved


Disclaimer and Note:

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.

Spirits Made of Earth: The Effigy Mounds - Ho-Chunk Connection Revisited


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 Examination of unpublished and published oral traditions of the Ho-Chunk suggest that a strong connection exists between these people, and their cultural beliefs, and the peoples who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.

The Work At Hand

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.

Summary of Results

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...