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Little is known about the people buried in Grand Mound, the largest prehistoric structure in the U.S. Upper Midwest

Mystery enshrouds ancient Native Americans who built burial mounds


About 10,000 years ago, soon after the glacial ice sheets melted and receded north and animals and plants started growing again, people moved into northern Minnesota and southern Canada. Little is known about these ancient people because there is, of course, no written evidence and most or all of their organic artifacts have long since disintegrated.

About 2,200 years ago, their descendants or others who moved there later built burial mounds along the Rainy River at the confluence of the Big Fork on the Minnesota-Ontario border near International Falls, Minnesota. The lives of these people too are shrouded in mystery.

“They’ve been gone for years. We don’t even know who they are. There’s no way to associate a known historical group to the mound builders,” said Edgar Oerichbauer, an archaeologist and executive director of the Koochiching County Historical Society by phone. “We don’t know very much about them really.”

The Ojibwa who live in Minnesota now came there in the 17 th century, so they are probably not closely related to the Native Americans of 2,200 years ago much less 10,000 years.

Modern people don’t have many artifacts from these ancient people, and one needs “quite an assemblage to reconstruct past life-ways,” Oerichbauer said.

Although few artifacts have been recovered belonging to the Ojibwa, one beautiful item found is a pictorial notation of an Ojibwa music board. Original illustration on birchwood slab, collected in northern Great Lakes area, ca. 1820.

Although few artifacts have been recovered belonging to the Ojibwa, one beautiful item found is a pictorial notation of an Ojibwa music board. Original illustration on birchwood slab, collected in northern Great Lakes area, ca. 1820. (Wikimedia Commons)

One thing that is known is the people who lived in the area parched and preserved wild rice 2,500 years ago.

“Just the acquisition and knowledge of the wild rice was a … resource, a major factor in the development of the mounds because it was a major food resource,” Oerichbauer said. He said people didn’t have to go off and gather other food as much because they had the wild rice.

Years ago modern people dug in the mound at the site about 15 miles southwest of International Falls, Oerichbauer said. Before there was deep concern for the integrity of Native American burial sites and sacred places, the Minnesota Historical Society did digs there.

“A long, long time ago trenches were put in,” Oerichbauer said. “There were times when the riverboats would go down the Rainy River and women would fix lunches and men would dig in the mound.”

Now the state will reopen a visitors’ center at the site after closing it in 2002 when people said it was wrong to have a tourist site at a burial ground.

"I think the time has come for it again," Indian Advisory Committee member Jim Jones, a member of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Indian Advisory Committee, told the Grand Forks Herald newspaper in a story about the reopening. He is also the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council’s cultural resources director.

“The concern about Grand Mound as a burial ground still exists, Jones said, but there's growing interest in using the site -- with the involvement of Minnesota's Native American communities and possibly in conjunction with a historical center at burial mounds across the river in Ontario -- to tell the story of the people who built the mounds and lived in the area centuries ago,” the Grand Forks Herald story said.

Oerichbauer said scholars speculate that the people would gather at the mound yearly, bringing with them the bodies of those who’d died during the year, and bury them in the mound.

The Herald article quoted from a 2007 report of the Minnesota Historical Society to the Minnesota Legislature, which said, "Indigenous peoples from the region converged on this spot where the great sturgeon spawned. Here they set up camps to trade, socialize, feast and conduct ceremonies. And here they buried their dead.”

Grand Mound, Manitou Mound across the river in Canada, and three other mounds in the area were built by people now called the Laurel Indians, who lived in the area from about 200 B.C. The Blackduck people later used the site, until about 1400 A.D. The largest of the five mounds is Grand Mound, which stands 25 feet (7.62 meters) tall, 100 feet (30.48 m) wide and 140 feet (42.7 m) long.

The Laurel Complex and other Hopewellian peoples

The Laurel Complex and other Hopewellian peoples (Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. government named the site a National Historic Landmark in 2011, nine years after the visitors’ center building was closed because of concern about tourists visiting a sacred site. Officials permanently closed trails around the mounds in 2007.

In 1930 a man by the name of Fred Smith bought the Grand Mound to protect it. The Minnesota Historical Society bought the site in 1971 and in 1975 built the interpretive center.

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung National Historic Site of Canada

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung National Historic Site of Canada (Wikipedia)

In Ontario, Canada, the Rainy River First Nations people run the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre at Manitou Mounds. Local officials from Minnesota will explore linking with Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung “to create a cultural tourism center on both sides of the border that will remind visitors of the people who lived there thousands years ago,” Oerichbauer told the Herald.

Options for the Minnesota mound, which could happen in the next few years, include reopening the entire site or just the trails with interpretive signs.

Featured image: Little is known about the people buried in Grand Mound, the largest prehistoric structure in the U.S. Upper Midwest.(Wikimedia Commons)

By Mark Miller



I believe that nowadays with the technology that we have we should be able to have studies done with less invasive ways we could then record the digs and what we find on the quartz discs leave them with a player next to the dig sites and rebury them that way our future Generations have them to find I've also been studying a mound here and right outside Louisville Kentucky it's been very interesting it's noted as an Ice Age Mound but the guy who owns the site things that it's done by the Hopewell Indians I found really interesting artifacts next to the river just laying there if you have any questions or would like to contact me please feel free

Gary Moran's picture

I certainly understand and agree with the the return of remains or stopping excavation when the site and remains are conclusively linked to an existing culture, tribe, or clan. However, when no direct linkage is demonstrated, especially in sites that are conclusively proven to be 2000 YO or more, I believe that the information gained may out weigh any concerns of desecration. I stand with Dan on that.  

First peoples are quite sensitive about their heritage, don't you know that?

It is indian tradition to not disturb the dead. There is enforced laws in Canada and USA alike to not disturb ancient burial whitout their autorization wich archeologies have not been granted often.



Why not re-open these mounds by qualified archaeologists ? There are tombs being opened all the time , all over the world . What makes these mounds more sacred than others . ?

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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