Thousand of years of Indian history in Mounds Park

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The new Indian Scout spent little time deciding on a December destiny on the most winter-like weekend of the season.

We’ll go to St. Paul’s Mounds Park, she immediately said.

So we did. An eerie mist hovered over the six burial mounds above the Mississippi River at the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. Historians speculate that the mounds-building people started creating the mounds as early as 200 BC.

The Scout and I gazed past the mist and rain at the small hills, imagining our early ancestors and hoping they were at peace.

As usual, the story gets ahead of itself.

The alpha Scout you’ve read about all these months wimped out on the prospect of shaking winter by its collar for an outdoor adventure.

“I don’t like the cold,” he declared in an unapologetic manner.

I winced. What Indian Scout worth his wild rice admits that?

So I called a St. Paul friend who is Ojibwe and the great great many-greats granddaughter of a famous Ojibwe chief. He’s well-known enough to be in the history books, but that’s all I can say because I promised the Scout that she and her relatives would remain unnamed.

We journeyed eastward on Interstate 94 in St. Paul to the Mounds Blvd. exit. The street ended at a T-intersection dominated by a large pavilion.

A protective fence encased the cluster of mounds in the 80-acre area that once contained at least 39 mounds. A sign asked visitors to refrain from climbing on the small hills.

Straight ahead the Mississippi River wound through the landscape, creating breathtaking beauty. We noted a foggy silver silhouette of downtown St. Paul shrouded in the morning mist. The air felt expectant, as though the mounds and trees and pathways knew that a ton of snow would fall soon.

The Scout and I worked our way through the snow to a far edge. We should put down tobacco, she said, reaching into a large purse. We sprinkled the tobacco around, a practice the alpha Scout follows on our outings, as well. I asked the new Scout why we didn’t see tobacco traces throughout the area, indicating visits from others. She said that maybe the traces were buried under the snow.

What’s buried within the mounds remains a mystery, concluded Paul D. Nelson of Macalester College in St. Paul. Nelson is director of the Macalester Study Abroad program.

Nelson published a 2008 paper on mound history that summarized the troubling history of the area. For example, a group of sloppy amateur archeologists dug up the mounds starting in the mid-1800s. Looters probably started before then.

In 1895 city park employees, razing Mound No. 8, uncovered four skeletons embedded in clay, as well as two copper breastplates. Skeletons and miscellaneous artifacts were recovered and stolen then and over the years, along with items such as copper pieces, mussel shells, pipes and more.

The mounds’ tumultuous past belie their tranquil present. We spent a lovely 90 minutes or so ahead of the snow and centuries behind the first area residents who painstakingly buried some of their dead. Without a doubt, they walked that same land on days when a winter fog created a swirling, mysterious mass. Without a doubt, they felt the same awe, and peace.

Deborah Locke can be reached at deborahlocke@fdlrez.com, or at FDL News, 1720 Big Lake Rd., Cloquet, Minn. 55720