Artifacts Handled with Respect

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Artifacts Handled with Respect

Postby PaddlerJimmy » Wed Sep 28, 2011 11:46 am

Artifacts Handled with Respect
9/26/11, David Unze, St Cloud Times

The earliest documentation of Ojibwe presence in the northernmost regions of Minnesota dates to the early 1600s.

With water as a main method of movement, those early Indians used today’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a travel route and can trace their history through its largely unaltered lakes, rivers and forests. Protecting that history and heritage — and the artifacts left behind — is a high priority for tribes and for the government.

It’s why the excavation work done by St. Cloud State University researchers at Knife Lake is so closely monitored by the U.S. Forest Service and why so much care and caution is used in deciding what to take out of the BWCAW.

“To some archaeologists, it’s just part of a pot or a flake off something that has been made. They just see it as an object,” said Rose Berens, tribal historic preservation officer for the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. “When I look at these things, I have a personal connection to that item. It might have been one of my ancestors who had that item.”

Berens has worked closely with the Forest Service and knows about the excavation going on at Knife Lake. St. Cloud State professor Mark Muñiz and several graduate students have taken trips each of the past three summers to Knife Lake, the most recent in August.

He is finding more evidence deep within the BWCAW that some of the earliest inhabitants in Minnesota likely lived in the north as glaciers retreated.
If Muñiz’s theory proves correct, it will rewrite a portion of the earliest history of northern Minnesota.

Berens and others have given presentations to Forest Service staff about cultural property, from the legal and personal perspectives, she said. And she and other tribal members have been invited to see the Knife Lake excavation firsthand.

She trusts what the Forest Service and St. Cloud State are doing on the lake, which is divided by the U.S.-Canada border.
“When something like that is happening here in northeast Minnesota, it isn’t so much that it’s happening, but who’s doing it,” Berens said. “I know them pretty well, and they know us. I would be more concerned if it was someone I didn’t know.”

Lee Johnson, archaeologist for the Forest Service, has worked with Berens and other tribal leaders and elders to assure them that due respect is shown and that researchers take out only what is necessary. He alone decides what artifacts are taken; those are then kept in a climate-controlled building in Duluth in perpetuity.

Another part of Johnson’s job is public education, meaning he walks a fine line between telling the public about the significance of the finds and protecting the artifacts from looting and an active antiquities market.

“I’ll run that risk,” Johnson said. “It’s our history. It’s America’s history.”

The BWCAW contains “a lot of places that, just by their nature, are going to be preserved,” he said. That means disturbing as little of the natural surrounding as possible, even when digging for artifacts.

So while Johnson will give presentations about the Knife Lake dig and what it yields, he won’t give the exact location of the dig and will remind people that it’s illegal to take artifacts from federal lands.

Such looting is more common in the Desert Southwest, he said.
Looting of historic American Indian sites “has been done so many times, and it’s pretty frightening,” Berens said. “It does happen up here occasionally.”
Cooperation between government and tribes can be a fragile exercise, and the Forest Service has been a good partner, Berens said.
“We’re very concerned about preserving our past and so are they,” she said. “It’s really nice when you can have conversations with people who are also concerned about the items they are excavating.”

In the past, some sites considered sacred by area tribes in the BWCAW have been protected, Johnson said, mainly through closure of adjacent campsites and increased monitoring by forest archaeologists.

And by spreading a message that Johnson calls the “footprints and photographs” philosophy.
“You leave only footprints,” Johnson said, “and you take only photographs.”
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