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MN state director gathering Native American input on Grand Mound

The scope of input on whether to reopen Grand Mound, a Native American burial mound west of International Falls, to the public is expanding to include more input from Native Americans. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. — The scope of input is expanding on whether Grand Mound, a Native American burial site located west of International Falls, should reopen to the public.

"We'll continue to engage with the community up there, the International Falls community and people in Koochiching County. We'll continue to engage with Native Americans up in that area, but we'll expand the scope to Native groups in Minnesota, as well as the larger region," said Joe Horse Capture, who is now overseeing the Grand Mound site.

Grand Mound is one of several sites that are now handled by Horse Capture, who was hired in December as the new director of American Indian initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society. Horse Capture, an enrolled member of the A'aninin in Montana, has previously worked as the curator of Native American arts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

After more than 30 years as a state historic site, Grand Mound was closed to the public in 2007 amid declining visitorship and concerns about treating a burial site as a tourist attraction. Grand Mound's use dates back to the Laurel Indians in 200 B.C., and it's considered the largest prehistoric structure in the Upper Midwest.

"I think it's important to get Native input on how we determine the future of the site where their ancestors are interred. I think a reasonable person would certainly understand that," Horse Capture said.

He said he hopes a decision can be made by spring 2018. That will ensure enough time to gather input, renew relationships with people who have an interest in it and decide how to move forward "so that everybody's interests are served," he said.

The process to reopen Grand Mound has been ongoing for two years and a committee of Historical Society staff, Native American officials and Koochiching County officials, among others, met last year to discuss the topic. The Historical Society considered opening the site in a scaled-back operation, which the county board opposed.

Koochiching County commissioners have expressed concern in recent months that they've been left out of the process and weren't told of the change in who oversees Grand Mound. Their concerns were outlined in a May letter from board chairman Kevin Adee to state Rep. Rob Ecklund and then discussed at a June county board meeting.

At that meeting, the board unanimously approved a $2 million bonding request for 2018 to reopen Grand Mound in a partnership between the county and Rainy River First Nations, which operates the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Center at burial mounds across Rainy River from Grand Mound, according to meeting minutes. In its motion, the board noted that county officials and Native Americans in the area have continuously asked the Historical Society to reopen Grand Mound "for its protection and to share the cultural, spiritual and historical significance of the Native peoples who have inhabited this area for thousands of years."

At the June meeting, the board was told a meeting in Cloquet had been held to discuss the site and a decision had possibly been made. Horse Capture said no decisions have been made yet about Grand Mound's future and the meeting in Cloquet was with the state's Tribal Historic Preservation Offices — the first in a series of meetings to gather input from Native American groups about whether to open Grand Mound. However, he said, "people may be under the impression that something significant like decisions were made and that's far from the case."

Horse Capture said he respects the opinions of people living in the area and he said he plans to renew discussions. He is also working in collaboration with Historical Society staff who previously led the process to determine whether reopen the site.

He said he's planning to visit Koochiching County by summer's end to discuss the site and the input process. He said he doesn't know the outcome yet because he's still doing outreach to Native American groups, but he would be "more than happy" to talk to people in Koochiching County about the next step in the process.

No one at the Historical Society was aware that Grand Mound was on the county board's agenda last month, but Horse Capture said he would have attended the meeting had he known about it. He apologized, saying that some of the lack of communication recently falls on his shoulders because he has been getting his bearings in the first six months of the job.

"I'd love to talk to people, meet with the commissioners and tell them our thinking on this whole thing. I understand there's probably some frustration up there because nothing has really moved and I get that. I apologize for that," Horse Capture said.

There are multiple facets to Grand Mound that need to be taken into account, he said.

"I understand how the delay can be frustrating, but this is an extremely sensitive site and it's not something one wants to rush into or make any kind of decisions without getting a full scope of understanding of all of the players involved," Horse Capture said. "We want to be respectful of the Native people in the area who live in the vicinity, we want to be respectful of Native people in Minnesota and we also want to be respectful of Native people in the larger region because this site is 2,000 years old."

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