Returned to their journey: Bones of 41 American Indians removed from Effigy Mounds returned to their tribes for reburial

Special agent involving a special place ... Effigy Mounds lead ranger David Barland-Liles is pictured above along one of the trails at Effigy Mounds National Monument. Beginning in 2011, he served as the special agent for the National Park Service investigating the most noted recent cases of wrongdoing at Effigy Mounds. Photo by Lissa Blake.

by Lissa Blake

What’s happened at Effigy Mounds over the past 28 years might sound more like the plot of a detective novel than the everyday operations of a National Monument. But after almost 30 years, guardians of the sacred place are in the process of righting a serious wrong.

According to David Barland-Liles, special agent for the National Park Service (NPS) and lead ranger at Effigy Mounds, the skeletal remains of 41 indigenous people, which were missing for 21 years, are being returned to their respective tribes for repatriation.

The story of the missing bones and how they were recovered involves many individuals who have worked at Effigy Mounds over the past three decades. Barland-Liles said he was working as a special agent for the NPS in St. Louis, MO in 2011 when the matter first came to his attention.

“Some tribal members have told me ‘the old ones’ chose me to find these people,” said Barland-Liles. “What happened here was the penultimate act of racism,” he said.

According to Barland-Liles, he first came to investigate the situation at Effigy Mounds in 2011 to follow up on claims made by former NPS employee, the late Tim Mason, that then Superintendent Phyllis Ewing was breaking the law. Mason had been concerned about unauthorized projects being undertaken under Ewing’s leadership and had reported his concerns to PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility).

When Barland-Liles started his investigation of Mason’s claims, he found that Ewing had approved at least 78 projects at the Effigy Mounds without the proper authorization.

“Every square inch of this place is an archaeological site. Every hole she dug is a felony. She was in violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. What Phyllis did was fail to follow the provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act, which required her to consult with tribal partners and state historical preservation officers on every project that could impact cultural resources,” said Barland-Liles.

Barland-Liles said what Ewing did was bad enough, but what he uncovered next was unbelievable. He discovered that Effigy Mounds was missing the bones of 41 people, whose remains had been legally excavated, cataloged and housed in the Effigy Mound National Monument Museum collection.

Barland-Liles explained after Effigy Mounds was created in 1949, the government legally excavated some of the grave sites in the interest of scientific understanding. The government stopped its excavations in 1971.

“They realized they were doing more harm than good,” he said.

In 1990, the government announced it planned to pass the Native American Graves Repatriation Act, meaning any remains and their funerary objects - or belongings they had been buried with - would have to be returned to the tribes. Effigy Mounds Superintendent at that time, Tom Munson, apparently did not want to have to return the objects to the tribes, and hoped to keep them in the museum’s collection.

“He thought if he stole the people, they would therefore no longer be associated with the funerary objects they were buried with. The National Park Service would be able to maintain possession of those objects,” said Barland-Liles.

Barland-Liles said when he started scrutinizing a number of reports, he found one written in 1998 by Dale Henning, a professor at Luther College. “He noted things had been taken out of the collection in 1990, but no one knew where they went,” he said.

Barland-Liles said Henning was not shown all of the documents, he only saw a list of numbers, and did not know they referred to people. “When I saw this document in 2011, I knew I was still investigating a crime that was still continuing,” he said. “When I saw this I said, ‘Crime is afoot. Criminal investigation begins right now’.”

In an effort to be transparent, Barland-Liles said he visited with the tribes and offered to have them monitor every step of his investigation. “That may have been the first time in history that’s happened,” he said.

To kick off his investigation, he first interviewed Tom Munson, who had retired, and his assistant, Sharon Greener, who was still working at Effigy Mounds. “At first they just tell me lies, and it took  me seven months to prove every lie was wrong,” he said.

During a second interview with Greener, she admitted she had helped Munson carry out and load two boxes from the collection into his trunk. “She said she didn’t know where they were going,” he said.

In early 2011, new and currently remaining Superintendent Jim Nepstad sees Henning’s report and “freaks,” according to Barland-Liles. “He goes to Bob Palmer, who had never seen it… Keep in mind, Bob thought of Tom (Munson) as his mentor,” said Barland-Liles.

Seeing the report triggered a memory for Palmer of being at a social event years back, during which Munson had commented that he had some animal bones in his garage that accidentally were moved there from the park housing where he lived while employed as Superintendent.

“I think Munson underestimated Bob. So when Bob called Tom and asked if he could come get them, he allowed it,” said Barland-Liles.

But on the day Palmer went to look in Munson’s garage, he didn’t find a thing. “He said, ‘Hey, Tom, keep looking for them.’ The next day, Tom called Bob to tell him he found a box,” he said.

After Palmer recovered one box of human bones, he sent it off to the State Archaeologist’s office where, incidentally, it was analyzed by Shirley Schermer, the world’s expert on human remains at Effigy Mounds who had been hired by Tom Munson in the late 1980s to study the remains.

“She said, ‘Yes, these are the people I studied in the late ‘80s, but this is only a third or half of them,’” Barland-Liles explained.

That’s when Nepstad and Palmer called in Barland-Liles for assistance.

Further confirmation came from Barland-Liles’ aforementioned second interview with Greener, when she admitted to everything. After that conversation, Barland-Liles contacted Munson to ask if he could have a look in his garage, where he ultimately found the second box of the missing bones.

In January of 2016, Munson pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of embezzlement and theft of human skeletal prehistoric remains. During the plea hearing, he admitted taking the remains July 16, 1990 and keeping them in his garage until May 17, 2012. He was 76 years old at the time of his sentencing.

He was sentenced to one year of probation, 10 consecutive weekends in jail and 100 hours of community service in addition to $108,905 in restitution to repair the whole and fragmentary human remains and a fine of $3,000.

Barland-Liles said during Munson’s sentencing, the tribes made it clear that the right people had to be in the right places for this crime to be solved. “If you reverse engineer that, the wrong people were in the wrong positions for this crime to even happen,” he said.

Barland-Liles said the Iowa Office of State Archaeologists recently completed the complicated task of reassembling the 41 skeletons, which Munson had carelessly thrown into two garbage bags.

“The state osteologists are helping us make these people one again. Through our own records, we can reassociate the funerary objects with the individuals,” he said.

When asked what the tribes will likely do with the bodies of their ancestors, he said, “That will be up to them… They will likely be returned to their journey here. We interrupted that journey when we excavated them. Tom Munson added to that interruption by stealing them and the interruption continued because the NPS couldn’t figure out this crime. Now we’re reversing all of that, which is the most beautiful thing ever. We will return them to their journey,” he said.

Amber Lupkes is the daughter of the late Tim Mason, who initially blew the whistle on some of the atrocities being committed at Effigy Mounds and was also a former employee of the national monument. Ironically, as this recovery process was unfolding, Mason unexpectedly passed away just over a month ago, September 12 of this year.

“I am so proud of my dad because he was so passionate about Effigy Mounds. After  he learned about the missing bones, he said he would never rest until they were found,” she said. “Now he can.”

Lance Foster, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, said, “We are really pleased and happy with the Effigy Mounds staff, led by Jim Nepstad, David Barland-Liles, Albert LeBeau and Bob Palmer, for really showing the leadership and making things right here for the tribes and for the ancestors. If it wasn’t for these folks, we wouldn’t have much faith in the system at all.”

“As Indian tribes, we are used to hundreds of years of injustice, so it’s always a surprise when anything good happens. We’ve been destroyed, annihilated… our existence dismissed. Even our history is wiped away… People aren’t taught about our native history at all. A lot of times, we have so many generations of destruction, when something like this happens we expect it to be that way. When justice does happen, it’s just a miracle,” said Foster.

Foster likened righting this wrong to taking care of a diseased tree:

“Sometimes you have to cut out the diseased part of a tree to bring it back to health… we all need to remember to keep our trees healthy,” he said.

When asked about the future of the 41 ancestors, Foster said, “They’re secure. Plans are being made to repatriate them and the tribes are going to be part of that process. It will be done as soon as we can get everything figured out, to put them back here somewhere.”

The oldest burials at Effigy Mounds National Monument date back 2,500 years, with the most recent being about 900 years ago. Referred to as the “sacred place where Nations meet,” Effigy Mounds National Monument has a long list of Tribal Partners who work closely with the National Park Service to make sure the land and what it holds are being respected.

Tribal partners include: Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians, Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, Upper Sioux Indian Community of Minnesota, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in the State of Minnesota, Lower Sioux Indian Community of Minnesota, Prairie Island Indian Community in the State of Minnesota, Sac and Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa, Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, Crow Creek Sioux of South Dakota, Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, Santee Sioux Nation, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Yankton Sioux of South Dakota, Sisseton, Wahpeton Oyate, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.

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