The college community’s interest in the Native American mounds on campus has waxed and waned over the years. Some alumni may remember them only as the backdrop of groggy 8 a.m. treks to class. Others may have studied them extensively in archaeology courses. But student advocates say that campus-wide awareness of the burial mounds is insufficient, despite efforts to educate people about them. Professors and students have worked to raise campus consciousness in the past, slowly but surely spreading the word about the sacred land on which the college stands. Over the past few months, this long-lived effort has accelerated.
Many have played a part in this renewed energy. Collectively, their work has resulted in some high-profile attention, such as the first official mention of the mounds during the 2018 Commencement ceremony. A student-run group known as the Campus Mound Sustainability and Advocacy Initiative, or CMSAI for short, has led a recent push to spread general knowledge about the mounds among faculty, staff, and the student body.
Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last fall, it was hard to find a restroom on campus without one of the group’s blue flyers taped to the wall. They have coordinated with the Admissions Office to give campus tour guides special training about the mounds’ history and significance, along with many other education and publicity projects. Their goal is to ensure that the mounds and surrounding land get the respect they deserve.
Those not in the midst of mound advocacy might feel a little lost right now. What exactly is the significance of the mounds?
Going back to the fall/winter 2003 issue of this magazine, William Green, then the Logan Museum Director, contributed an article titled On Hallowed Ground. The comprehensive piece gave a chronology of the mounds and the college’s treatment and preservation efforts over the years. Green explained how around 1,500 years ago, the ancestors of the Ho Chunk (Winnebago) and other Native American tribal groups built the Beloit mounds. Twenty of the 25 original mounds remain on Beloit’s campus. Some were excavated during the first half of the 20th century, while others were lost to construction. However, laws now protect the mounds the same way they do other burial sites.
Green, an expert on prehistoric archaeology of the Midwest, served on the original, mid-1980s committee that crafted Wisconsin state legislation to protect all burial sites, including mounds. He also served on the 2016 Legislative Council committee that revised and clarified the law.
Those laws reflect the sentiment the CMSAI is trying to cultivate on campus: The Beloit mounds are places of burial. They are sacred in ways comparable to a cemetery and should be given that recognition. As proprietors of this sacred space, the school is responsible for preserving and maintaining respect toward the mounds.
Upholding this responsibility takes multiple forms. Campus groundskeepers, for example, use lower impact lawn mowers on the mounds to reduce erosion. For similar reasons, walking and sitting on the mounds is being discouraged. Beloit’s responsibility, however, is not limited to physical preservation.
CMSAI members believe that an educated campus community is critical to the mounds’ survival. In addition to advocating for including remarks about the mounds during last year’s Commencement (the event is held on the Middle College lawn, the location of several mounds), and successfully placing explanatory notes in the event program, students worked to increase dialogue about the mounds. In a panel discussion last fall organized by students in Sex and Power, a critical identity studies course, two students and several faculty members shared important aspects of preservation and awareness with attendees. CMSAI aims to make events like this commonplace in future semesters.
Others on campus have similar hopes for increasing awareness about the mounds. Associate Professor of Anthropology Shannon Fie, who joined Beloit in 2002, is pleased with the newfound energy around mound advocacy. She describes how, over the past five years, student interest has come from many areas of campus, including the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness, critical identity studies courses, and most recently, CMSAI. Fie believes the most important aspect of the recent advocacy work is that it is led by students.
Jennifer Pantelios’19, one of the students leading the initiative, became interested in advocacy work during a conversation about whether people should be allowed to walk on the mounds during Commencement. She was aware of Fie and Green’s work, along with that of past students, and she wanted to make sure their protective efforts continued. By coordinating with Fie and other students from anthropology and other departments (Pantelios is a geology major), she joined with several other students to form the CMSAI.
The campus wide, grassroots qualities of the CMSAI seem to be succeeding in changing campus sentiment around the mounds, and members say they will continue to work on improving the college’s coexistence with this sacred landscape.
Web Arnold majored in anthropology at Beloit. This fall, he will begin a J.D. program at DePaul University College of Law.