Minnesota Historical Society considers burial ground's future
Discussions are underway for reopening Grand Mound -- a burial site whose use dates back to the Laurel Indians in 200 BC -- after the site was closed to visitors eight years ago.
Discussions are underway for reopening Grand Mound - a burial site whose use dates back to the Laurel Indians in 200 BC - after the site was closed to visitors eight years ago.
Minnesota Historical Society representatives have been meeting since May with International Falls officials and Native American leaders from either side of the Canadian border to discuss the stories that should be told about Grand Mound, along the Rainy River about 15 miles southwest of International Falls.
After more than 30 years as a state historic site, access was closed in 2007 amid declining visitorship and concerns about treating a burial site as a tourist attraction.
Recent discussions are focusing on telling stories from the Native American perspective, said Ben Leonard, Minnesota Historical Society manager of community outreach and partnerships.
Grand Mound is considered the largest prehistoric structure in the Upper Midwest and includes five burial mounds.
However, it's not the only site of burial mounds in the area. Grand Mound is among burial mounds found along the nearby Littlefork River, in Voyageurs National Park and at the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre across the river in Ontario, Leonard said.
The ecology of the site and the reason it served as a gathering place also is expected to be explained to visitors once Grand Mound is reopened. People traveled distances to meet at Grand Mound and Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, probably drawn by the Rainy River and its sturgeon, and plants found at the two sites probably were brought by those people, Leonard said.
"The ecology of Grand Mound is very unique. There are plants there at that site that aren't (found in) other places. There are plants at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung that aren't (found in) other places," Leonard said.
Telling those stories is going to take effort, Leonard said.
"We're trying to tell the regional story, and we're going to need staff and people," he said. "This isn't a story that we're entirely going to tell with interpretive panels at the site."
How the stories are told at Grand Mound will be key to drawing people to visit the region by piquing their interest, Leonard said.
"A good rule of thumb about interpreting places or museum exhibits: You can't tell every single story, so what you try and do is get people interested, get people hooked, kinda make it complicated," he said. "History is not simple. It's not black and white. It's complicated. There's lots of people and ... people are complicated.
"So if we can get people hooked, we can make that history complicated and convince people they should try and learn more," Leonard said. "I would love it if every visitor to Grand Mound went to Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung and into the Koochiching County Historical Museum and went to Voyageurs National Park to buy books and listen to Native people."
It's still too early for a specific timeline on reopening Grand Mound, but Leonard said he hopes that five years from now, it will have been open for at least a year. It's a long-term plan, and they need to ensure that they're doing it right, he said.
Once open, the site needs to be sustainable. Leonard said he's focused on ensuring that it can remain open to the public.
"We talk a lot about what something costs initially. That's less of my concern," he said. "My concern is, let's think about five years, let's think about 10 years, let's think about beyond, because that's what's going to be important."
The next meeting is scheduled for September, when Minnesota Historical Society representatives hope to unveil a vision for the site going forward.