Committee Votes on How Native American Burial Grounds Should Be Handled in Wisconsin

Jan 3, 2017

There is disagreement in Wisconsin over how to handle some Native American burial mounds. At odds are tribal representatives and business owners.

For months, a special state panel has been working on legislation to make everyone happy. Committee members submitted their final votes on Friday.

Native burial mounds can stretch of hundreds of feet, and many are shaped like deer or birds or bears. Others look like simple hills. There are mounds on Robert Shea’s property, and he says he’s been fighting to test them for remains for 25 years. Back in the 1980s, Wisconsin made it illegal for landowners to disturb burial sites.

“If we believe human remains are there, why would we be opposed to verifying that in the most thoughtful, least invasive way possible?” Shea says.

Shea is president of Wingra Stone and Redi-Mix, and he was at the center of the bill that surfaced about a year ago. It would have allowed property owners to excavate and possibly develop some Native American burial sites.

When the bill sparked disagreement, Shea agreed to serve on the Committee on the Preservation of Burial Sites, which was charged with forging a compromise. And he isn’t the only member in favor of testing for remains. Justin Oeth is co-chair of a construction industry group.

“I’m looking at this from the perspective of a landowner and we’re cataloging property that imposes severe restrictions on an owner’s use of the property. We’re not talking about complete desecration of a site,” Oeth says.

David Grignon is with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. “Would we go into a Christian cemetery and test a burial in that cemetery? I don’t think so, but you want to test what’s sacred to us in our burial mounds,” he says.

A fellow committee member, Democratic state Senator Jon Erpenbach agrees that the state cannot have two different standards. “We’re almost creating two classes of people who have been buried. You have Native Americans and non-Native Americans. You’re treating Native Americans differently as a result of having to go through this extra hoop to prove that it’s a burial site when we already spell it out in the beginning for non-Native Americans, yeah, it’s a burial site, don’t dig there. And so to me, this is kind of a frustrating conversation,” he says.

In the end, a few things the proposed plan would do include increasing the protected buffer zone around burial sites from five feet to 10 feet, clarifying when the Wisconsin Historical Society could add a burial mound to the list of protected sites and provide additional ways for landowners to contest historic designations.

If the special committee approves the plan, it will move on to the state Senate and Assembly and if passed, to Gov. Walker.