Effigy Mounds working with tribal partners to repatriate, rebury stolen human remains

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Effigy Mounds National Monument currently has the remains of 41 native people in its collection, and all are slated for repatriation and reburial with the help of the monument’s tribal partners. The remains were missing from the park’s collection for over 20 years, after being stolen by former superintendent Thomas Munson.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Effigy Mounds National Monument currently has the remains of 41 native people in its collection, and all are slated for repatriation and reburial with the help of the monument’s tribal partners.

How these remains came to be—and stay—in the collection all these years is a tale Effigy Mounds law enforcement officer David Barland-Liles said is laced with theft and racism, but also an opportunity to reckon with and learn from the past.

Established in 1949 just a few miles north of Marquette, Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves and protects over 200 ancient burial mounds that are held sacred by 20 affiliated tribes. To the park’s tribal partners, the people buried in the mounds are relatives, their final resting place a sacred site for reflection, prayer and connection to family and community.

However, said Barland-Liles, from the time of the monument’s inception until 1971, federal government-sponsored archeological activities were permitted.

“Remains and goods were excavated and came into the collection,” he said during a special presentation at Effigy Mounds on July 28. Excavations ceased in 1971, when park officials “realized they were probably doing more harm than good.”

Barland-Liles said this realization stemmed from a growing movement across Iowa. That year, a native woman named Maria Pearson learned from her husband, John, an engineer with the Iowa Highway Commission, that over two dozen human remains were discovered during a highway construction project near Council Bluffs. Twenty-six of the bodies were white pioneers, and  were disinterred and reburied elsewhere. The bodies of a native woman and her child, though, were sent to the state archeological office for study.

Pearson demanded equal treatment. In 1976, her advocacy paid off, as Iowa became the first state to pass a law protecting Native American burial sites.

On Nov. 16, 1990, a federal law—the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)—was finally enacted, giving American Indian tribes claim over the remains of their ancestors.

“It required the federal government and federally-funded entities to return all remains to the people, to the descendants,” Barland-Liles explained. “At the time, it was quite controversial. NAGPRA was a new school of thought.”

Archeologists were especially concerned, said Barland-Liles.

“But it forced people to find new ways to study,” he remarked. New technology and science was created and utilized. “The archeology field began to evolve.”

Through repatriation, he said federal entities were also forced to develop relationships with sovereign nations. It was hard, after years of distrust, said Barland-Liles, but also important.

“You realize you don’t have to go digging in the ground” to discover history and archeological details, he said. “You can just ask now, and we’ll advance together.”

“These are people. Not items for study,” he added. “They need to be returned back and made whole again.”

But as NAGPRA neared passage, not everyone at Effigy Mounds felt that way.

On July 16, 1990, Barland-Liles said the monument’s long-time superintendent, Thomas Munson, filled out a report of survey deaccessioning 41 human remains in the collection. They were listed as “miscellaneous material” that did not fit the scope of the collection.

“Then he walked out of the building with two boxes of 41 people and drove to his house in Prairie du Chien,” said Barland-Liles. “He used that document to mislead other staff and steal 41 people.”

Barland-Liles believes Munson likely stole the remains to circumvent NAGPRA.

“He knew it was coming and thought, ‘If I steal them now, I will disassociate them from the funerary objects we excavated with them, which are beautiful and look great on display,’” the law enforcement officer surmised. “I think he thought the law was so bad, and that other people would figure that out, and he would be a hero.”

Barland-Liles said this conspiracy continued for 22 years. The remains—by this time jumbled all together—stayed in the boxes in Munson’s garage, unbeknownst to other park employees.

“The house of cards that supported the conspiracy started to fall in 2011,” he said.

By that time, Barland-Liles, who did not yet work at Effigy Mounds, was the special agent looking into the matter. He saw the report of survey, and within 35 seconds of looking at the document, knew a crime was afoot. But it wasn’t until another employee said Munson, who was then retired, had off-handedly mentioned a box of “animal bones” in his garage that Barland-Liles thought to look there for the missing remains.

“I spent seven months going down every rabbit hole, every lie he’d ever told me,” Barland-Liles reflected. “I didn’t know if I was going to find them.”

The case was turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and entire nations of native people consulted on and monitored the investigation. 

“Entire nations of people provided victim statements,” Barland-Liles said.

They were even asked what they wanted sentencing to look like, an unprecedented allowance from the federal government.

Munson was finally sentenced on July 8, 2016, after four years of going through the plea agreement process. His punishment included one year of probation, 20 days in jail, community service, $109,000 in restitution and $3,000 in fines.

The restitution, said Barland-Liles, is going toward repatriating the 41 sets of remains.

Barland-Liles said many feel the punishment should have been steeper, but he still views it as a victory.

“We found the people and brought them home,” he said. “They’re with their items again and we’re working with the tribes to return them on their journey. They help us understand what that is.”

Barland-Liles said, although this case happened at Effigy Mounds, the National Park Service, as a whole, also has to reckon with decades of institutionalized racism that allowed human remains to be displayed and studied.

“It was a very emotional, very inspiring case,” Barland-Liles remarked. “It’s most definitely changing the culture of the National Park Service.”

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