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Criminal: Reclaiming Ancestors At Effigy Mounds

A drawing of Effigy Mounds.
Julienne Alexander
The formations at Effigy Mounds National Monument are burial sites. They're shaped to look like animals from an aerial view.

National Parks and Monuments are often considered wholesome environments: peaceful places that preserve nature and history. However, this week's Criminal podcast tells how the remains of 41 American Indians disappeared from the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.Host Phoebe Judge described the mounds as enormous burial sites, where tribes laid their dead and other ceremonial items to rest. She said the mounds are huge, and rise up over the bluffs of the Mississippi River. From above, they're shaped to look like animals, such as bears, birds, and sometimes even humans.

Monument Superintendent Jim Nepstad told her tribes built these mounds by hand before white settlers moved into the area in the 1800s.

"This is a, you know, literally, close-to 100-foot-long animal that's been sculpted onto the earth by bringing basket after basket after basket of earth and piling it all up," said Nepstad of one formation. "There's the equivalent of dozens of dumped truckloads of earth that were moved and and placed in order to create just this one mound right here."

More than a technical feat, the mounds are very sacred. But that hasn't prevented them from being disturbed since the land nearby was developed. Early farmers ground up some mounds — along with the bodies inside — as they tilled their fields.

For more than 100 years after, Native remains were dug up for archeological research and stored in museum "bone rooms." Even when Effigy Mounds was declared a National Monument, park infrastructure was set up so carelessly that sign posts and utility buildings damaged grave sites. Native people were understandably upset.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA. It protects Indian graves and allows tribes to reclaim their ancestors' remains and sacred items from museums.

Patt Murphy, NAGPRA's representative in Iowa, was tasked with gathering remains to rebury.

"We are charged with taking care of the any body that cannot take care of themselves," said Murphy. "And we're also supposed to take care of the ones that were dug up and their spirit journey was interrupted."

But the federal law didn't mean officials at  Effigy Mounds National Monument jumped at the chance to help him out. In fact, when Murphy requested an inventory of Native remains and artifacts from the monument, it turned out that 41 bodies—almost the museum's entire collection—had gone missing.

You can hear more about the Effigy Mounds' investigation and the eventual recovery of the remains on this week's Criminal podcast.

Criminal is recorded in the studios of WUNC.

Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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