Staff from Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung (Manitou Mounds) and community members from Rainy River First Nations were invited to attend a conference entitled: “Mounds and Memory: Indigenous Sovereignty, Ceremonial Spaces, and Stories of the Mound Builders.”
The event was hosted by Pamela Klassen who is the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies, for 2022-23, in Canada Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Klassen is on loan to Harvard from the University of Toronto. Along with Philip J. Deloria, Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History, Harvard University.
Klassen hosted an event at Manitou Mounds last year that saw indigenous and academic speakers visit the mounds for a conference about how institutions like universities and museums can work together with indigenous groups.
The conference at Harvard featured community members representing different mounds and earthworks from around North America including the Newark Earthworks near Columbus Ohio as well as the burial mounds of Pamitaashkodeyong or Hiawatha First Nation near Peterborough in southern Ontario.
While at Harvard the group had the opportunity to visit the museum and see the indigenous collections as well as see some of the indigenous history of the university itself.
Jessie Richard is the Archivist and Grant Manager at Manitou Mounds. She recounted the story about the church giving money to Harvard and requiring them to offer programs for indigenous people.
“We got to take a tour around the campus and see a plaque describing how when Harvard started, they were really pressed for money. They had to go to the church and the church said that they would financially support them, but they had to run programming for Indigenous students and those students would work on translating the Bible to Cree,” Richard said.
Art Hunter is an indigenous historian at Manitou Mounds. He said some of the discussion was around protecting these ancient indigenous sacred sites.
“Some of the things that were discussed were ‘how do we care for these things in the future going forward?’ Because a lot of what used to be sacred sites were destroyed,” Hunter said. “They talked about some of the sites that had been destroyed and rebuilt, not in a sacred way but… rebuilt to look the way that they were at one time.”
Richard says it was interesting to talk to people involved with other similar areas.
“We talked about preservation of mounds and how do we go about preserving them in the best manner that is still accessible for the community members and for people of the culture.”
Richard says that the different groups were not always in accord when it came to protecting and raising awareness.
“Some people were of the stance that you leave them alone and you don’t publicize where they are,” Richard said. “Some people are of the stance that you make historical centres and have it totally accessible and it was kind of like everyone was one way or the other about it. It was kind of interesting because we (Manitou Mounds) are both of those spaces. We have mounds that are accessible, but we also have mounds that are inaccessible, that are blocked off, because they’re not meant to have people around them.”
Hunter also says it’s important to take the spiritual aspects into consideration as well for indigenous peoples and the only way for that to work is for cooperation between indigenous and settler groups. An elder at the event talked about the need to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of the sites even if the physical appearance is no longer there.
“There’s some [mounds] down in Ohio that they built a golf course over and the spiritual side of it was discussed and the elder said because of that destruction and the loss of memory of what used to be there and how they did things, those spirits still have to be acknowledged in some way,” Hunter said. “What we have in Rainy River First Nations and Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung with the burial mounds site there, we are here, the people are still here protecting it. Other sites like down in the United States there’s cities built around them.”
“[Indigenous] people have to be included in the discussions, just like we did at the Mounds and now down at Harvard,” Hunter said. “So it’s got to be a collaborative effort. Like they understand now the spiritual implications because they have heard it directly from First Nations people.”
Hunter says these kinds of events are important to keep lines of communication open as there are many other issues surrounding sacred artifacts that have been removed from sacred locations.
“Trying to communicate and let museums and other places that have sacred space know that those things still have to be taken care of even though they’re there because they have been displaced, especially human remains,” Hunter said. “So that whole conversation is about not just the physical aspect of the sacred sites but the spiritual side of it.”
Richard says the collaboration with others in similar circumstances throughout North America was also important.
“I think the collaboration of a bunch of people from all over Turtle Island (North America) and the ability to connect and learn from each other was really important,” She said. “To see everybody’s different stance on different thoughts and processes was really great as well.”
Both Hunter and Richard feel that this kind of cooperation is important going forward. Despite being different countries, Americans and Candians have similar things to work through.
Richard says collaboration between groups can also help the process of reconciliation as well.
“I think when a bunch of small communities come together, rather than just being singular, you give a lot of power,” she said. “There were over 30 people there representing all different areas and all of them know that there are artifacts… hidden all across the world that have been stolen by large museums or institutions or archaeologists. But when you bring people together and start to talk about it you give it power…”
Hunter mentioned that both American and Canadian groups can work based on shared experiences to convince governments to help them tell the stories that need to be told.
“In Canada we had the residential school system, over in the States they called them boarding schools and it was pretty much the same thing,” Hunter said. “We have to try to get the governments involved also. I think this is a good start where we see institutions, especially Harvard University, having this conversation. People coming to Harvard to have this conversation. One of my hopes is this will get noticed and governments will hopefully get more involved in actively protecting and revitalizing things like offering things like funding to replace or rebuild or have a resource we can draw from to do something simple like at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung we have our round house, things like that to be able to tell our story, and that’s what it’s all about.