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Desecrated grounds

I felt physically ill at the idea of using a cemetery for recreation, but composed myself so that I could discuss it with my children
Rice Lake Mounds (CC-BY-SA-3.0 by "Appraiser" via Wikimedia Commons)
Rice Lake Mounds (CC-BY-SA-3.0 by "Appraiser" via Wikimedia Commons)

My family took a much-needed weeklong respite at a cabin in Comstock, Wisconsin. Though the days were filled with campfires, kayaking, and board games, we still wanted to venture out—and COVID-19 forced us to explore open spaces perhaps more than we might have otherwise. Having never been to Comstock, I surveyed the surrounding towns for outdoor parks and hikes. I was surprised to come across Indian Mounds Park about thirty minutes away in Rice Like.

Recognizing a potential teaching moment, we made our way to the “park.” I was shocked upon arrival when I realized a former Native American burial ground was now a city park.

Around the year 500 CE, the “Mound Builders” formed 51 burial mounds. Over time, about 75% of the mounds were destroyed by excavation by the Smithsonian (or other groups) and wanton city expansion. Only twelve mounds remain. The only hint I perceived that this was sacred space was the sign prohibiting dogs in the park.

I felt physically ill at the idea of using a cemetery for recreation, but composed myself so that I could discuss it with my children.

“Perhaps 100 years ago when they ‘started’ the park they thought this was a way to honor the space?”

“Maybe they did what they could to save the remaining burial grounds?”

“Maybe they just didn’t know?”

The apologetics just kept coming. And there we saw it: people fishing, picnicking, strolling — even over the mounds — in a Native American cemetery.

And why not? The City of Rice Lake describes the “park” as:

Property for Indian Mounds Park was purchased by the city in 1924 with the area originally called Tourist Park and was planned as a drawing card for tourists.  It contains the last of the burial sites of the Mound Builders on the west side of the lake…Natural features include extensive lake frontage and approximately 12 sets of Indian Mounds with a historical marker and text.  The primary nature of the park is passive, with picnicking representing the major use. Recreation facilities include a unique pipestone shelter, restrooms, picnic tables, grills, swinging bench and boat dock.  Parking is limited to the street.  The remainder of the corridor north of Indian Mounds Park is primarily a parkway with a small boat landing area.

As we huddled together in the “park,” my children were also confused. Why would this not be sacred space? Would we not be outraged if we saw people bicycling through our cemetery, picnicking on a relative’s grave, fishing from the tomb of relatives? Would we not raise our voices? Would we not petition our elected officials?

My young children are growing up in the age of Bde Maka Ska. That is, in their mind, of course the largest lake in Minneapolis would be referred to by the original Dakota name, not after a proponent of slavery and of Native American removal—despite his role as a former Vice President.

My eldest son asked me with his 10-year old innocence: “Can’t we just give it back?”

And I initially had no answer.

Of course, I might have explained broader ideas like that of transferring federal lands back to Native Americans or that land seizures from Native tribes should be central to any US history education. But that would not have been enough and likely would have been lost on my young children.

My son was asking how can we fix this? I answered him candidly: we took the land and we should not have. Living on and benefiting from that land does not make what we did right—but it also is nearly impossible at this point to undo it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to fix it somehow. And it starts with doing teshuvah—a literal and figurative about face.

I told my children that right now we can do right moving forward. And we can advocate and use our voices to lift up those who do not have a voice—especially indigenous peoples. At the very least, the first step starts with awareness and respect. We identify the injustices and we seek to right the wrongs. They seemed satisfied with the answer—perhaps even invigorated.

We stood at the perimeter of the holy ground and we whispered together a modified traditional Jewish memorial prayer in Hebrew and English:

God, full of mercy, Who dwells above, we pray that you grant rest on the wings of the Divine Presence, among the holy, pure and glorious who shine like the sky, to the souls of all those resting here. Merciful One protect their souls forever and bring their souls into the bond of life eternal. May God be their inheritance, and let them rest peacefully, respectfully, and undisturbed, here. Amen.

We walked away in silence, and each of us made a silent commitment to work toward justice for indigenous communities, while opening our eyes wider to our beloved country’s substantial missteps.

This piece was abbreviated into a letter to the editor published in the Wisconsin State Journal on July 6, 2020

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.
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