Planned burial mound survey in S.D. shouldn’t hinder farmers

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Farm Forum

A planned survey and search for American Indian burial mounds in northeast South Dakota shouldn’t hinder local farmers this summer.

The work to locate and map burial mounds might result in farmers being asked if their ground can be accessed to gather information, but it won’t involve excavation, said Michael Fosha, South Dakota’s assistant state archaeologist.

“What it’s being used for is so that this info can be given to county planners or city planners,” said Fosha, explaining it is important to know where the mounds are when issuing permits.

It’s illegal to knowingly disturb human remains, and the offense is a felony under state law. But, Fosha said the object of the survey is not to take any ag land out of production. He knows telling farmers what they can or can’t do is a touchy subject. And the South Dakota State Historical Society’s Archaeological Research Center doesn’t have that authority, anyhow.

The vast majority of farmers would never cultivate a burial site provided they know about it, he said. And the historical society will help them develop a plan for avoiding those areas, if needed, Fosha said.

“Most people are really respectful,” said Katie Lamie, burial program coordinator for the South Dakota Historical Society Archaeological Research Center.

Fosha said the office also can exhume and re-bury remains in an area that’s not cultivated. But, that’s not the preferred option because it’s very costly, he said.

“In those cases, it doesn’t fall upon a household or farmer to pay for us to have to come out,” Fosha said.

However, if a contractor is working on a for-profit development, the business heading the project not only has to pay for the response and exhumation, but is further inconvenienced because it is idle for a few days while archaeologists are on the scene.

All the more reason to have good records of burial mounds. Anytime such problems can be avoided, it’s a benefit to all parties involved, Fosha said.

The surveys will be done in Brown, Day, Edmunds, Faulk, Marshall and McPherson counties. The burial mounds are believed to have ties to the Sioux Tribe and the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Wrikara, which used to live in what is now South Dakota.

Anytime a landowner finds human remains, the first step should be to call law enforcement, Lamie said. If the remains are from an undisturbed archeological site, people from her office will respond.

Historical sites

Fosha said most mounds are either circular or rectangular. Stone or wood pits were built for the bodies, then covered with dirt, which accounts for the mounds.

Many, he said, have been cultivated out of existence. But farmers nowadays, after years of erosion and cultivation, might unearth the mounds or their remains. If that happens, he said, landowners should call the historical society for help.

Those doing the surveys this summer — two companies have been hired for the work — will contact impacted property owners. And the archaeologists doing the work will get permission before going on any property, Fosha said.

No means no, he said. But if granted access, the most that will be done is a little snooping around and mapping. No artifacts will be collected and no ground will be disturbed, said Fosha, pointing out that burial mounds are protected from archaeologists, farmers and just about everybody else. There are very few instances in which they can be disturbed. Sometimes, he said, they have to be moved to accommodate a road or a dam. Any such work is always done in conjunction with tribes, who partner in such projects, he said.

The information collected during the surveys might point the way to other burial mounds or past settlements, said Fosha, explaining that mounds usually aren’t far from villages.

In South Dakota, American Indian settlements often are found on the east or east-southeast sides of lakes and east side of streams and rivers, Fosha said. Winds in the state generally blow from west to east, and being on the east side of a body of water provided safety from fires pushed by the wind, he said. Plus, the water served as a form of air conditioning in the summer, he said.

Often, he said, gravel pit operators like to set up along streams or lakes. To prevent them from damaging burial mounds or previous settlement sites, they are required to be permitted in South Dakota, Fosha said.

Artifacts from the burial mounds can help archaeologists determine what tribe might have built them, Fosha said.

Early maps

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, he said, there started to be concerns about the loss of burial mounds to city expansion and agriculture, so folks, at the time, tried to map the areas. But maps weren’t nearly as detailed then. This summer’s project is, in a way, a continuation of that work.

Those old maps have been a boost for more recent work, Fosha said. Still, some mounds have only been noted from nearby roads, so the quest for more detailed information continues, he said.

Lamie said the old maps are better than most folks might expect. But there isn’t a lot of good information about burial mounds in, for instance, Brown County, she said.

Sometimes, farmers or landowners call the historical society when they find or suspect they’ve found a burial mound. Fosha says he hopes that practice continues and that folks aren’t reluctant to ask questions.

“This is a great opportunity to have those looked at,” he said.

Some landowners don’t realize that there is at least 12,000 years of American Indian history in South Dakota or how complex the historical sites can be. The office, she said, is happy to offer education and understanding.

“As landowners, they have a right to know what might have been recorded on their land previously,” she said.

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