UPDATE: 86 pages of comments were received. Read/Download the PDF here.Call for action below
The proposed Afton Wastewater Treatment Facility project will have a significant and permanent impact on important Native American archaeological and cultural resources, particularly the 1000-year-old Rattlesnake Mound (or Rattlesnake Effigy).
The St. Croix River has been known for thousands of years by the Dakota people as Hogan Wanke Kin, or “the place where the fish lies,” a reference to a legend originating from—among other places—the well-known Wisconsin sandbar known as Catfish Bar, across the river from the city of Afton, Minnesota. In June 1883, the archaeologist T. H. Lewis located and surveyed the Rattlesnake effigy Mound in Afton.
The association between the presence of the Dakota in this area of the St. Croix and the Catfish Bar legend, that provided their name for the river, is all the more significant given that the Afton Rattlesnake effigy and Catfish Bar lie across the river from each other and—a little further to the west on the Afton side—the tips of Native American pointing trees stretch out towards both landmarks.The point must be made that the area of Dakota cultural significance around Afton is much larger than the mound site itself. It includes the Catfish Bar, the pointing trees, and other areas likely within and immediately adjacent to the proposed treatment facility.
The presence of the known trio of natural and man-made spiritual markers in this small geographical area suggests this section of the river is as potentially significant to the Dakota people as Jerusalem is to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Without a full archaeological survey of the Native American presence in the area, there is a danger that an important cultural history will be destroyed irrevocably.
The Afton Wastewater Treatment Facility project and the Rattlesnake Mound
An aerial photo/map (below), submitted with a May 2015 archaeological survey, outlines the location of proposed storm ponds (in yellow) in relation to the Rattlesnake Mound. The sheer proximity reveals an amazing level of disregard for an obvious spatial violation of what should be a federally-protected sacred Mound.
The City of Afton’s engineer’s map (below) of the proposed sewer project shows a plan in which five new pipelines (in red) violate the physical boundaries of the Rattlesnake Mound, passing through the head and body outline. The plan is literally to pump sewage under the Mound.
Existing sewer lines (in orange) will be abandoned in place to decay, thus further polluting this key Native American cultural treasure and burial ground.
During the public consultation process, Native American tribes and other interested parties contributed comments to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
Human Remains Have Already Been Found in the Rattlesnake Mound
While tentatively listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1000-year-old Rattlesnake Mound has yet to be fully surveyed and receive a final official designation. In a June 6, 2016 letter from the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office (MHPO) to the MPCA, the MHPO stated its belief that the Rattlesnake Mound is “eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places”. Yet the sewage project continues on.
One of the key points made repeatedly in public comments during the consultation period was that human remains were excavated from the Mound in the 1950s, as documented in a 1956 Stillwater Gazette article, “Indian Grave”. Then property owner D.J. Peabody was quoted as saying:
“At least one tomahawk and a number of arrowheads have been found in the Mound… A number of years ago, several workmen uncovered two skulls from the body of the fish.”
The MPCA chose to whitewash this core issue, which should have resulted in the automatic protection of the Mound under U.S. Federal law, issuing a determination that:
The Office of the State Archaeologist has no definitive records in its files that document human bones being recovered within the limits of [the Rattlesnake Mound]. In a letter from the State Archaeologist to the MPCA on January 19, 2016, they were not aware of any human remains being documented from the site for the purposes of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
A local 1956 newspaper account stated that workmen had found two skulls in the body of a “fish” (assumed to be the Rattlesnake) Mound. Because the skulls are no longer available for inspection in any known public or private collection, the account is being treated as hearsay, especially since there are other significant errors in the newspaper account.
The 1956 Stillwater Gazette article is an interview with D.J. Peabody, a former resident of the Afton property with the Mound in its backyard and his respect and physical care for the Mound. Peabody’s neighbor until his death in 1980, John Kerschbaum confirmed in a February 15, 2016 phone interview that Peabody recognized the spiritual significance of the Mound, reportedly even chasing nosy kids away from it with a shotgun and promises of buckshot!
“I don’t think he ever dug,” Kerschbaum recalled, ”That was kind of a no-no and taboo”. As Peabody himself put it in the article, “I wouldn’t want anyone digging up my grave!”
The MPCA’s reference to “other significant errors” in the article is a blatant and baseless attempt to discount the unambiguous historical testimony in Peabody’s own words—that human remains have already been found in the immediate vicinity of the Rattesnake Mound.
When you read the text of the Stillwater Gazette article, found online at http://protectvalleycreek.info/issues-of-concern/native-rights/indian-grave/ what is immediately striking is that there are no contentious assertions made.
Most of the article is concerned with Peabody’s general opinions regarding respecting the sacred site. The dimensions of the Mound he gives in the article are correct. The only remaining factual information that could be said to be in “error” are minor and banal background details such as his father-in-law’s name and length of residence in Afton, and Peabody’s age and occupation. Those are literally the only facts left for the MPCA to dispute.
Reading the article, the MPCA’s claim of error is a falsehood obvious to any reader. By discounting the article, the MPCA is able to avoid the immediate shutdown of the stormwater and sewage project according to the 1990 U.S. Federal Statute, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which can basically be summed up as—”if there are human remains, you can’t dig”.
In an August 4, 2016 letter, the MPCA stated:
After giving careful consideration to all available information, the MPCA has made a final determination that the project will result in no adverse effects to historic properties.
The Minnesota Historic Preservation Office bluntly disagreed with the MPCA’s “no adverse effects” determination, in a July 22, 2016 letter to the MPCA during the consultation process. Their opinion appears to have been entirely discounted by the MPCA.
The full findings of the MPCA’s consultation process can be viewed online at: https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/findings
Afton’s Historical Lack of Concern for the Rattlesnake Mound
The Rattlesnake Mound has been repeatedly vandalized over the last 100 years—all under the oversight of, and with the official permission of, the City of Afton—including from 1971 levee construction and the addition in 1980-81 of between 8-10 feet of landfill to the private backyard where the Rattlesnake’s head is located, which we assume has covered parts of the Mound and is one of the reasons why the overall outline is not visible.
Peabody’s neighbor John Kerschbaum, was traveling in the year Peabody died and remembers returning in 1981 to discover that Peabody’s house had been sold.
“I remember I was walking on the [nearby] dike, and I noticed [they’d put a septic] right on the mound. I remember stopping [and thinking] ‘What the heck is going on here? How could they just do that? Isn’t it protected? And I called the City and it fell on deaf ears.” Kerschbaum recalls the addition of the dirt, which he described as “covering up the head”, which remains partially visible to this day, suggesting the existing body of the snake lies buried under the 8-10 feet of dirt.
An archaeological survey of the Rattlesnake Mound area earlier this year went only surface deep, digging shallow, one-yard-deep test holes in the area surrounding the Mound. As the first 8-10 feet beneath the surface is exactly that landfill dirt dating from the early 1980s, it is hardly a surprise that a survey conducted to only a superficial, one-yard depth, turned up no Native American artifacts or remains in the immediate area of the 1000-year-old Mound.
Rich Myhers, the current Afton resident whose backyard is home to the Rattlesnake Mound head, believes there will be both artifacts and human remains found:
“Approximately 10 years ago I found an axe-head there [Editor’s note: in the location of the proposed holding pond]… It now is on display at the Afton Historical Museum… I have no doubt artifacts will be found. There is a high probability human remains will be unearthed.”
CALL FOR ACTION: We are asking for official comments from federally-recognized tribes and other interested parties to be submitted to the MPCA by September 1, 2016
Points to make:
- Throughout the last century, the City of Afton has repeatedly allowed and enabled the desecration of the Rattlesnake Mound (officially designated 21WA10) through private building and levee construction. The Afton Wastewater Treatment Facility project is merely the latest in a long line of violations of this Native Tribal burial ground.
- Regardless of the length of the consultation process, the responsible Minnesotan authorities have failed to accommodate the expressed concerns of multiple Native Tribes—to cease any and all construction activity in the area of the Rattlesnake Mound.
- There is credible historical evidence that human remains have already been found in the immediate area of the Rattlesnake Effigy. The MPCA must be held accountable for its dismissal of this evidence and required to explain exactly what “other significant errors” the MPCA found in the article, that led it to feel reasonable in discounting this key evidence.
- The 1990 U.S. Federal Statute, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act offers severe penalties for desecrating graves, and the City of Afton will not be able to escape liability and criminal prosecution by saying “we didn’t know”, when considering Afton’s historical contempt for the Rattlesnake Mound, its apparent deafness to both Native Tribes and the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office, and the discounting of historical evidence that human remains have already been found in the Rattlesnake Mound.
- Please contact Corey Mathisen at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency via email before the 4:30PM CST, September 1, 2016 deadline: Corey.Mathisen@state.mn.us