By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published May 02, 2006 at 5:17 AM

Laurie Hovell McMillin grew up in Trempealeau, along the Mississippi River, went away to faraway places like Tibet and India, and then returned to study and write about a clash of cultures over history in, "Buried Indians: Digging Up the Past in a Midwestern Town."

Trempealeau is best known among most visitors for the Trempealeau Hotel, home of the famous walnut burger and some great music, Trempealeau Mountain and Perrot State Park.

But, for many archaeologists, it is a "mecca" of history, and for some Native Americans, a holy place.

Burial mounds -- some conical, a few effigy and a large Hopewell mound known as Nicholls Mound -- are rather plentiful in the area. Many have been excavated for remains. Some have been preserved.

McMillin, who is an associate professor of rhetoric, composition and religion at Oberlin College in Ohio, concentrated on differing cultural views and political disputes over some platform mounds, built by Native Americans who remain unknown.

Some believe descendants of the same people who built Aztalan and Cahokia near St. Louis built the mounds. The Ho-Chunks, who do lay claim to some of the other burial mounds, do not believe their ancestors built them. Some of the residents of Trempealeau believe they were built or at least enhanced by bulldozers well after the Native Americans were gone.

"Part of the problem is that nobody has really come forth to claim them as theirs," said McMillin in a recent interview. "The land also has a couple owners in a church and the village, so that has complicated things."

McMillin, who went to school at nearby Galesville with a nickname of the Redmen, was vaguely aware of the platform mounds, became more aware of some of the other mounds while growing up and confronted the racism she saw in her hometown.

"Many residents were somewhat aware mounds were in the area, and somewhat proud of the history in the area, but looked at it as something in the past," McMillin said. "Indians just disappeared into the forest in their minds and had little to do with contemporary life."

Shaped by cultures

In her book, McMillin illustrates how all the differing individuals involved in the debates over the platform mounds had world views that were shaped by their own experiences and sub-cultures.

Longtime farmers know of the rich history of farming and white settlers in the area. Norwegians were proud of their ancestors who settled nearby. Ho-Chunks knew of their ties to the area, but had little interest in the actual debate over "ownership" of the platform mounds.

McMillin said she gained interest and appreciation for the mounds and cultural differences in her hometown after going away to study in Tibet and India.

"It was almost as if I had to go away, escape to another part of the world, in able to come back and really see what was in the place where I had grown up," she said. Throughout the book, McMillin interweaves stories from her childhood, about family and friends, which illustrate varying mindsets and biases.

Her writing does an overall good job of not being too judgmental of people who opposed preservation of the platform mounds, or had no interest at all.

She does take a rather strong stand, however, on the desecration of burial mounds -- by developers, farmers and even archaeologists themselves. She writes about one relative who brought a skull and bones home after the uncovering of a skeleton of Native American origin.

"Only after she was out of college did the incident come to bother her. Reflecting on the scene years later, Lynn said, 'If we had thought we were digging up a white person's grave, I don't think we would have felt entitled. I can't imagine feeling (entitled) if he had been the first homesteader.' She tried to understand her attitude back then. In part, she said, we had the sense that Indians were part of 'pre-history -- we didn't have their stories.' Instead, 'there was this feeling that they had vanished.' The bones seemed to belong to another order of being."

A Ho-Chunk source in McMillin's book says the entire state of Wisconsin is "a burial ground" that has been disturbed, dug up and removed: "As Anna Funmaker protests to the people, the laws and ideologies that would relegate the Ho-Chunk to the past: 'We're not extinct. We're not disappeared. We're here!' When so many have died, their names and land taken, that is not a small thing to say. And, the memory of the violence, the sadness and meanness and regret that accompanies it, is something that shapes who we think we are, where we think we live."

Form of violence

McMillin repeatedly refers to "the removals" as a form of violence against Native Americans, who also were victims of violence during removals of the living to reservations, etc.

"It was considered an entitlement by those who did the removals," she said in the interview. "Even archaeologists did not think about it. The digs were simply something they did as part of their profession. I think laws have changed now, but at one time that's how archaeologists worked."

The book came out in March. McMillin has not received any hate mail from Trempealeau. She has not been home since the book's publication, so has had little direct feedback from townspeople.

She emphasizes she does not want to portray Trempealeau as a uniquely bad or ignorant place when it comes to relations between white society and Native Americans. Many communities around the country and world -- including Oberlin where she now lives -- deal with such clashes of world views and cultures.

"I think Trempealeau is a beautiful place," McMillin said in the interview. "I no longer live there, but in many ways it is home. I encourage people to go there and see Nicholls Mound and some of the other mounds as part of their visit."

The platform mounds might be more difficult to visit. The dispute over ownership and possible preservation of them has never ended.

McMillin writes near the end of her book: "While the fate of the platform mounds was still pending, I imagined a dedication ceremony that would bring together a cast of characters from different times and places. ... Let's all stand on the highest platform and pray and sing and smoke a pipe. Let's bow our heads and raise our arms and keep and meditate on what has been lost.

"But this image was too full of Hollywood imaginings, too full of utopic Thanksgiving stories, too full of romance. I put us all back in our respective times and places, and we returned as well to our particular ways of relating to and being with the mounds. Some of us worshipped the sun from atop them, perhaps, while others grazed cattle, built fires, erected water towers and cleared brush. Some of us stared at the river and dreamed of the past. Some of remained below the mounds, intent on something else."

McMillin is not cynical about the lack of consensus about the mounds. "My husband says I'm an idealist," she said. "I still think if people just talk, and get each other to listen, things will work out. It is heart-breaking at times. I think I am aware of the impossibility and my idealism, but I don't give it up."

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.