Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Intruding on the Past: The Reuse of Ancient Earthen Mounds by Native Americans

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Intruding on the Past: The Reuse of Ancient Earthen Mounds by Native Americans

Article excerpt

Historic Native American burials in ancient earthen mounds suggest a link between the pre-contact aboriginal past and the colonial period. This practice has been silenced in the ethnohistorical record, but the nature of this silence is not known. Some forms of resistance occurred beyond the gaze of Euro-American observers, and the colonizers certainly had their own reasons for not "seeing" or recording a link between the mounds and contemporary native groups. This article explores the possible connections between this practice and the contemporaneous construction of the "myth of the moundbuilders," and the possibility that these "intrusive" burials represent a response to colonialism.

Perhaps no Anglo knew the native societies of the Ohio and Maumee/Wabash River Valleys better than William Henry Harrison. Like most American adventurers of his time, Harrison also took a great interest in the land and landscape of the Old Northwest. Both the traces of a vanished past and the potentials of a capitalist future of this seemingly untamed wilderness fired the "colonial imagination" of Harrison and other Americans flooding into the Old Northwest at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century (Pratt 1992; Silverberg 1968:3). The ancient mounds and earthworks of imagined "lost civilizations" that dotted the landscape west of the Allegheny Mountains were contrasted with the "savagery" of the contemporary native inhabitants of the region and became key tropes in a colonialist discourse that sought to justify and legitimate the westward expansion of agrarian capitalism. One result of this discourse was the production of historical narratives that have collectively come to be known as the "myth of the moundbuilders" (Silverberg 1968).

The production of any historical narrative involves the exercise of power, and the moundbuilder myth is no exception. Moundbuilder narratives are riddled with many contradictions and silences. Among these, for example, is the fact that Native Americans were being buried in these ancient monuments throughout the very period that the narratives-which separated moundbuilders, who lived in an imaged time before history (i.e., "prehistory"), from Indians, who, as the misnomer constantly reminds us, belong to history-were being produced. This article is an attempt to track and expose the roots of the "power in the story" of the moundbuilders (Trouillot 1995). By examining what are termed "intrusive burials," I hope to demonstrate how the moundbuilder narratives continue to shape how archaeologists interpret the archaeological record, perpetuating the false dichotomy of prehistory /history.

This position was recently and explicitly put forward by Dunnell (1991). Dunnell (1991:573) asserts that as a result of catastrophic depopulation following the arrival of Old World contagions, contemporary Native Americans "both biologically and culturally, are very much a phenomenon of contact. ... In some important respects, our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors got it right; they even got it right for the right reasons, although the terminology is not exactly modern. The people responsible for the archaeological record [e.g., the moundbuilders] were just as they supposed, a far more numerous, culturally different group of people than were known in historic times. The entire relation between past and present, between history and archaeology must be rethought." This last point is true enough, but the rethinking propounded here takes a much different trajectory.

The Moundbuilder Controversy

The moundbuilder controversy is well known to most students of American archaeology, so I will only outline it here in broad brush strokes (for more detailed information, see Blakeslee 1987, 1989; Boewe 2000; Feder 1996:119-140; Kennedy 1994; McGuire 1992:230-232, 2004:377-378; Silverberg 1968; Trigger 1980, 1989:104-108; Willey and Sabloff 1993:22-28; Williams 1991; Yelton 1989). …

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