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Can Detroit return its brownfields to the indigenous sacred sites they once were?

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Can Detroit Return its Brownfields to the Indigenous Sacred Sites They Once Were? was originally published on yesmagazine.org.


Ask a current Detroiter what stands at the junction of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers in the Delray neighborhood, and they may tell you about Zug Island: blast furnaces, mounds of coal, and gated-off trestle bridges guarded by signs warning “No Trespassing” and “Cameras Prohibited.” There is no sign at the site, however, of what Delray residents in the 19th century would have seen on the opposite riverbank: the Great Mound of the River Rouge, an enormous mound where generation after generation of Indigenous tribes in the region buried their dead.

Growing up in metro Detroit and working in schools in the city, I had never heard of Detroit’s Indigenous earthworks, once ubiquitous to the riverbanks of the city’s eponymic strait. It took a short story by English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy for me to learn the history of the burial mounds in my hometown.

Now, with U.S. Steel’s recent cessation of operations on Zug Island, what might future residents of the area describe standing at the junction of these two rivers?

The Great Mound of the River Rouge

In 2015, I was wrapping up a graduate degree in Scotland and preparing to move back home to Michigan. My supervisor, a Thomas Hardy specialist, got an email from James Bratcher, a Hardy enthusiast in Texas, speculating about a connection between Detroit’s Indigenous mounds and the publication of Hardy’s short story “A Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork,” in the Detroit Post in 1885. Hardy’s story describes an unethical archaeologist’s nighttime dig at an ancient earthwork near Dorchester, known as Maiden Castle, framing a transatlantic problem in English specifics: Victorian archeological practices sometimes destroyed what they should have preserved.

“Since this is more or less literally up your street, I wonder if you’d like to see if you can take it further?” my supervisor suggested, forwarding the email along to me. Back in Detroit that fall, I visited the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, which holds copies of the original Post. I found Hardy’s story and read the papers leading up to and after its publication. There were no references to Detroit’s burial mounds. The circumstances surrounding the composition of Hardy’s story and the arrangement of its publication in the Detroit Post are not exactly certain; one postcard provides a hint at its placement. Did Hardy know about Detroit’s ancient earthworks when he composed his story or when he placed it?

My sense is that Bratcher is right: whether arbitrarily or at the hand of an editor, the story of Dorset’s ancient earthwork could be transposed across the Atlantic and read as a local story, a story perhaps of the Great Mound on the Rouge River in Detroit. While critics have not always known what to make of “A Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork,” which is an outlier in Hardy’s short fiction in style and tone, I read it as a satirical commentary on the destruction wrought by archaeological digging and the economic and imperialistic values that drove it.

Having climbed the steep escarpments of the earthwork fortress Maiden Castle with friends in the summer of 2014, I found myself curious about the magnitude of the missing Detroit mounds. Information on their history is limited, the best historical depictions of them coming from Detroit naturalist Bela Hubbard’s 1887 Memorials of a Half-Century and hobbyist-archaeologist Henry Gillman’s 1873 and 1875 reports for the Smithsonian. Hubbard records that according to local inhabitants in the early 1800s, the Great Mound stood 800 feet long, 400 feet wide and 40 feet tall. By the time he was writing his memoirs in late 1800s, he was watching it shrink to half its original size, plundered by pothunters and carted away for sand.

“We must regard this great mound—now being so ruthlessly destroyed—as a vast necropolis, containing the dead of many centuries, belonging both to the prehistoric past and to our modern era,” Hubbard urged.

That winter I visited Fort Wayne, eager for the chance to scope out the last remaining mound preserved inside its walls. Fort Wayne was an army fort established in 1843 along the Detroit River where many of the mounds and an unusual earthwork once stood. It was also the site of the last peace treaty signed in Michigan between the U.S. government and Indigenous tribes. Most of the buildings—including the row of Victorian officer homes where the last remaining mound stands—are dilapidated, roofs sunken in and windows boarded up. The mound itself—excavated twice, and reformed in the 20th century to assume its original shape—is a small hill enclosed on all sides by a chain-link fence labelled “Indian Mound.” It would be easy to miss.

The rest of Detroit’s Indigenous earthworks, I learned, had been destroyed, either for sand or due to urbanization. The construction of Fort Wayne itself leveled at least two other mounds on the site, and the construction of fairgrounds for the Detroit International Exposition in 1889 marked the complete leveling of the Great Mound. Gravel from the core of the mound was used to tamp down the dusty walks of the fairgrounds.

The human remains excavated by Gillman were described in racist terms in his reports to the Smithsonian, in line with the contemporaneous racist rhetoric that deemed Indigenous peoples as less than human. Some of the skeletons were sent to museums, including the University of Michigan’s Natural History Museum and Harvard’s Peabody Museum, where they remained as recently as 2014 before being repatriated to the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians. Still more museum-held remains from the mounds have yet to be repatriated to Indigenous communities, despite the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. Many more human remains were pushed directly into the river.

The destruction of the burial mounds in Detroit paralleled the displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples in the United States. The more I read about the mounds in Detroit and across the Midwest, the more I encountered the nineteenth-century rhetoric of “civilization” used to rationalize the annexation and obliteration of Indigenous peoples and culture. As Ibram X. Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning (2016), throughout history racist ideas have been created as a way to justify economically motivated racist policies, leading “consumers of these racist ideas to believe there is something wrong with [the people they target].”

The policy of civilization depended on the idea that Indigenous peoples were “savage” races that would become extinct in the face of “progress” if not “saved” by the Euro-American introduction of agriculture and education (despite the fact many tribes had been…

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