Mounds of Evidence

Investigating the enigmatic Hopewell culture, Moundbuilders with a vast trade network who lived along the Grand River 2000 years ago.
A photo by archeologist Richard Flanders, from the digital collection of University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, shows field research conducted on "Mound M" at Norton Mound complex in July of 1964. Slide #29192 courtesy of University of Michigan Museum of Athropological Archaeology.

The ancient burial mounds in the Grand Rapids area offer a poignant glimpse into the Indigenous Peoples who once flourished in the region. Among these sacred sites, the Norton Mounds, located on the east bank of Grand River stand as silent sentinels, bearing witness to an enigmatic culture that once thrived in the area. In contrast, the Converse Mounds, razed by construction as downtown Grand Rapids expanded in the 19th century, are now merely symbolically represented in Ah-Nab-Awen Park.

Both mound groups are attributed to ancient peoples known as Moundbuilders,
a diverse pre-Columbian indigenous civilization that engaged in division of labor, grew crops, had vast trade networks, and constructed mounds for a variety of purposes.

The Big Dig
Richard E. Flanders (1931–1989), a professor of Anthropology at Grand Valley who earned his PhD. at University of Michigan, conducted an extensive survey of Norton Mounds in 1964 through which he cemented the hypothesis that the Norton Mounds belonged to the Hopewell culture— a category of Moundbuilders who flourished in the Eastern Woodlands of North America from around 100 BCE to 500 CE.

Through his excavations and research, Flanders sought to understand the cultural practices, social organization, and the ceremonial and religious activities of the people who constructed the Mounds. The dig focused on documenting earthworks, human remains, and artifacts, ultimately yielding valuable data on the material culture of the Hopewell people.

He wrote about his findings in “The Burial Complexes of the Knight and Norton Mounds in Illinois and Michigan” (1970), which he co-authored with James Bennett Griffin and Paul Francis Titterington. The book, published by University of Michigan Press, contains meticulous descriptions of the objects uncovered, and includes photographs and illustrations of a Busycon shell, copper, threaded stones, fabric, pottery, atlatl projectile points, a pipe carved out of stone in the shape of a bird, as well as human remains and other artifacts. The findings served as evidence that these particular Moundbuilders were of the Hopewell tradition. Among other criteria, the Hopewell are characterized by a vast trade network that stretched as far north as the Upper Peninsula; as far south as the Gulf of Mexico; as far east as North Carolina; and perhaps as far west as the Rockies.

The dig Flanders took part in was not the first to unearth burial mounds in West Michigan. The Norton Mounds were initially excavated in 1874 by archaeologist W. L. Coffinberry, who was associated with the Kent County Scientific Institute (which would later become the Grand Rapids Public Museum).

According to The Newsletter of Hopewell Archeology in the Ohio River Valley, the most “spectacular” discovery was made when developers were installing a water line in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 1885. A mound disturbed by the excavation produced “large nuggets of copper and silver, copper panpipe jackets, copper celts, drilled effigy and true bear canines, platform pipes, and an effigy beetle done in antler.” The artifacts were placed in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Other early researchers, like W. M. Mills and Harlan I. Smith, played crucial roles in discovering and documenting other mound sites. Their efforts may have laid the foundation for further archeological investigations, but 150 years have passed since the discovery of the Norton and Converse Mounds, and there is still much to be learned.

Relics Returned
The future study of the Hopewell is now limited to what’s already been documented. On January 12, 2024, an updated Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Its purpose was to improve upon a 1990 law, outlining the processes for the “disposition or repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony.”

A photo provided by Grand Rapids Public Library of people examining relics found in mounds along the Grand River in Kent County. Photo colorized by filmmaker Chris Penney.

Ed Pigeon, Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Anishinaabek Curator and Gun Lake Tribe member views this as a very good thing.

“The GRPM has been on the cutting edge, ahead of the curve. Before these regulations ever came out, the museum was really following NAGPRA and a human remains policy,” said Pigeon. NAGPRA includes a step-by-step roadmap with specific timelines for museums and other agencies to facilitate disposition or repatriation of relics and remains.

“In the sixties or the seventies, there were still people digging them up and studying them,” Pigeon said, perhaps referencing the excavation documented by Flanders. “There were big debates between Natives and university people on the ethics of it.”

The Natives won. “Everything that was dug out of the Mounds was repatriated back to Gun Lake 10 years ago,” Pigeon said.

A Documentary
While the repatriation of remains of Moundbuilders who lived in the Middle Woodlands period to the Gun Lake Tribe is a “win” for Indigenous Peoples everywhere, for local filmmakers Chris and Amy Penney who are making a documentary about the Hopewell culture in Michigan, it serves as a little more than an inconvenience. With all the relics tucked away, no longer on view at museums, it’s difficult to tell the story of this fascinating culture without access to key visuals, such as pottery, artwork, stone tools, projectile points, and other items that were buried along with human remains.

Filmmakers Amy and Chris Penny interview Marjorie Steele at Norton Mounds in April of 2024. Photo courtesy of Sophia Maslowski.

Chris noted that similar sites in other states draw tourists and offer educational programs that provide an invaluable understanding of Indigenous Peoples. Serpent Mound, an earthwork in Ohio attributed to the Adena culture (500 BCE–100 CE), has a visitor center and provides walking tours, attracting visitors from all over the world. Amy expressed concern over trash she noticed at the Norton Mounds. Indeed, Flanders, in his book, documented the remnants of a modern picnic mixed in with ancient artifacts. This suggests people may be oblivious as to what the “hills in the woods” actually are. A film on the subject could raise awareness and spur beautification and preservation efforts.

“I’m just thankful for the people on the fourth floor of the Grand Rapids Public Library,” Chris said, referring to employees who helped him locate some of the only publicly available archives on the subject. “They’ve been very helpful.”

Many aspects of the Hopewell culture remain the subject of academic debate, such as its seemingly sudden cessation around 400–500 CE. What happened to the Hopewell? Did they die out due to a climate catastrophe or cataclysm? Were they assimilated into the Moundbuilders of Cahokia in Illinois, the Mississippian culture (1050–1350 CE) that built the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas north of Mexico? How are they related to the Anishinaabek?

“We came from the East over to this place,” said Pigeon of the Anishinaabek. “They (the Hopewell) would be the people who came before us, at least the way I interpret it…a lot of Native people will say that since (the Hopewell) are also Native people, they are our relatives.”

A New Exhibit
Pigeon, who worked in Tribal government for 21 years, is currently working on a new Anishinaabek exhibit for GRPM. “I actually came out of retirement to do this,” he said. “The current exhibit is over 30 years old now. What people don’t realize is they’re surrounded by Tribal people,” he said, noting that his Tribe is an owner of one of the most prominent buildings in downtown Grand Rapids, McKay Tower.

“We’re going to highlight in the new exhibit, not only our past, but our present and all the contributions we continue to make.”

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