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Park Service Construction Damaged Native American Burial Sites

Under the watch of the National Park Service, $3 million worth of illegal construction projects went on for nearly a decade at Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa.
Clay Masters
Under the watch of the National Park Service, $3 million worth of illegal construction projects went on for nearly a decade at Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa.

Imagine being able to drive an all-terrain vehicle right up next to a sacred earthen Native American burial mound.

At Effigy Mounds National Monument, you can. Three million dollars' worth of illegal construction projects went on for a decade at one of the nation's most sacred Native American burial grounds in northeast Iowa. And it happened under the watch of the National Park Service.

The park didn't do the proper archaeological studies before installing an intricate boardwalk system that now encircles ancient burial mounds that are shaped like bears and birds.

"I will not rest the rest of my days until all this junk is removed," says Tim Mason, who used to work among these ancient Native American mounds.

Ask Mason his title and this is what you get: "Tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping, hell-raiser."

Mason grew up here. He's now retired, but for 19 years he held a lot of different jobs at the monument, from laborer to park ranger. During visits to the park after retiring, he'd see these boardwalks and other structures going in. Mason filed a complaint that sparked a criminal investigation by a Park Service special agent.

"They had collaborators at every level in the regional office and the national office, and they were securing funds, they weren't doing the checks," he says. "They were violating federal and state law to build all this junk."

Nobody that was responsible for the damage is still employed at the monument. A National Park Service spokesman says it is creating a corrective plan that will make sure something like this never happens again.

Some of the boardwalks were intended to make the monument handicapped-accessible. Jim Nepstad, the monument's new superintendent, says it's important for him not to make the same mistake when trying to fix the problem.

"Let's involve the public, let's involve the state historic preservation office, let's involve our tribal partners," he says. "And make sure everyone has a voice before we go in and wholesale rip everything out."

Nepstad says it's going to take time to figure out just what to do.

And while it's not his ancestors buried in these mounds, what's happening here speaks to a more fundamental issue traced back to when Europeans first came to America, says Johnathan Buffalo, the historic preservation director at the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi.

"The feeling of ownership of our very human remains, the ownership of our artifacts, the ownership of basic knowledge of who we are, what we are, where we come from," is what this is about, he says.

Buffalo says while he thinks the right thing will ultimately be done, he isn't sure what that will be. One thing's for certain, though — everyone will be watching how a federal agency with a mission of preserving artifacts undoes its own construction that many view as desecration.

Copyright 2021 Iowa Public Radio News. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio News.

Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR