RM of ARTHUR -- A thousand years ago, when Europe was mired in the Dark Ages and divided by ethnic warfare, the interior of this continent was dominated by a culture that excelled at moving immense quantities of earth.
At Cahokia, an ancient city near modern-day St. Louis, earthen mounds as high as 30 metres served as the dominant feature of a community that had as many as 40,000 residents. At the time, Cahokia easily ranked as one of the largest cities in the world.
Hundreds of other mounds, some of them built in the form of snakes and turtles, were erected across the Mississippi River basin by a culture that predated the indigenous people encountered by the first Europeans to venture onto the North American plains.
And at the northern edge of this Mississippian sphere of influence, a group of the same people or their neighbours erected a series of mounds across southern Manitoba and North Dakota.
The combined wisdom of indigenous oral history and western archeology suggests the northern mound builders were the ancestors of the Sioux, who eventually fractured into the ethno-political divisions familiar to us today as the Dakota, Lakota and Nakoda.
Their ancient mound-building forebears altered the landscape of the northeastern prairies on a massive scale. They raised the edges of eskers, likely over the course of centuries. They shaped hilltops into the form of animals. They aligned features as far as 75 kilometres away from each other to mark celestial events, such as the location of the sun at winter solstice.
Yet because they moved earth instead of stone, few people ever stop to consider what was once one of North America's dominant civilizations.
"When people want to do European history, you don't blame them for starting with the Egyptians. But would they ignore Rome and Greece?" asks James Ritchie, a Boissevain-based oral historian and heritage expert who's been employed by the Dakota. "In this hemisphere, we focus on Central America and we ignore the Sioux."
On a sunny morning in August, Ritchie stands alongside a reservoir southeast of Boissevain, pointing out a hilltop he says was raised and painstakingly shaped into a serpent by the mound-building people responsible for what archeologists call the Devils Lake-Sourisford Burial Complex.
The site in question isn't included in a catalogue of similar mounds in Manitoba and North Dakota, he says. That means it likely wasn't sacked by relic hunters during the antiquities craze of the early 20th century, let alone dissected by archeologists. By happenstance, it also wasn't plowed under by any farmer.
Dakota elders have granted Ritchie permission to show this site to journalists and anyone else interested in pre-European history, even though there is a traditional Dakota aversion to the prominent display of burial sites to outsiders.
A great deal of cultural and spiritual change occurred on the Prairies during the tumultuous centuries after European contact, when the vast majority of North America's indigenous population -- as much as 98 per cent -- was wiped out by displacement, warfare and disease. This explains the limited understanding of the sprawling pre-contact civilization that grew adept at moving earth across the centre of the continent, from Manitoba down to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.
Paradoxically, the Manitoba mounds most familiar to archeology are kept off limits to the public, thanks to the irreconcilable interests of Dakota who wish to save them from further exploitation, tourism authorities who want to show them off and even mineral-rights holders who have no interest in drawing attention to the presence of ancient and invaluable mounds all over southwestern Manitoba's booming oilpatch.
The features in question reside on Linear Mounds National Historic Site, a triangle of federal land that encompasses a bend in the Antler River, about 17 kilometres south of Melita. Ottawa protected the site in 1973 to preserve a pair of 200-metre-long mounds, both of which end in conical formations, as well as a single conical mound off to the side.
In 1979, archeologist Leigh Syms dated the mounds' construction at some time between 900 and 1400. Artifacts found at the site include a shell from the Gulf of Mexico and copper from Lake Superior -- both evidence of the extensive trade networks that existed during pre-contact times.
"Linear Mounds is one of the best-preserved examples of the mound-building phenomenon in Canada and is part of the largest mound complex in North America. This is true despite the ravages of time, early relic collectors and many years of active farm cultivation," reads a Parks Canada management plan for the site, published in 2007.
That plan calls Linear Mounds a "non-operational site," which means there's no staff as well as no visitor services.
"As a result, there has been no dedicated operational budget. However, this status does not diminish Parks Canada's obligation to protect the site, communicate its importance and to engage others in achieving these objectives while respecting the spiritual nature of the site."
In reality, Linear Mounds is fenced off with barbed wire and Parks Canada actively discourages anyone from visiting the site. In 2005, when I was conducting research for a Manitoba travel guidebook, a Parks Canada official pleaded for the site to be left out of the publication.
This is despite the fact Linear Mounds is one of only nine national historic sites Parks Canada administers in Manitoba, among a total of 57 in the province. It's also the only Parks Canada-administered national historic site in Manitoba that protects and commemorates indigenous heritage.
But the feds have good reason for wanting no part of any interpretive activities at the site, let alone visitation. In short, some Dakota elders consider the place haunted -- both by the removal of human remains from the site as well as by a massacre they believe took place at the site 200 years ago.
The historical basis for the massacre places it in the category of legend, albeit a plausible one that dovetails with what is known about indigenous border patrols during the War of 1812.
According to the tale, a party of Métis hunters happened on what was either a Gros Ventre or Hidatsa village shortly after every resident had been killed by a raiding party of Sioux from the south. The Métis then killed the Sioux in retribution.
This story is based on a single, third-hand account in a 1940s magazine article as well as oral histories from sources that include U.S. and British army deserters from the War of 1812, Ritchie writes in a report about Linear Mounds.
What's important is Dakota elders believe the tale -- as well as the possibility casualties from all three parties -- murderers and murder victims alike -- were left at the mounds alongside much older human remains from pre-contact times.
While the historicity of this tale may never be confirmed, what's certain is archeologists went on to remove human remains from the mounds.
No less than 30 sets of human remains were removed from Linear Mounds during excavations conducted in 1907, 1913 and 1914, former Parks Canada cultural resources manager David Hems confirmed.
While the idea of removing bodies from graves is abhorrent today, archeologists at the turn of the 20th century operated under the belief they were preserving cultural heritage.
"In the early 1900s, a lot of these mounds went under the plow as agriculture spread," Hems said in an interview shortly before he departed the park service. The Linear Mounds were chosen as the best representation of the burial complex on the northern plains, he explained.
Those remains were carted east and are now stored at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que. Until those remains are repatriated, Dakota communities in Manitoba won't even begin to consider sanctioning some form of interpretive activities related to Linear Mounds National Historic Site.
In 2008, Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation, the closest Manitoba indigenous community to Linear Mounds, asked the Royal Ontario Museum to send back the remains in its collection.
The ROM responded by asking Canupawakpa to gather support for this idea from all indigenous communities that could claim descent from early Souian people who built the mounds. And that meant contacting Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation, Dakota Tipi First Nation and indigenous communities in North Dakota.
"We're all in agreement of repatriating our people, our ancestors," then-Canupawakpa Chief Frank Brown told the Brandon Sun. "We just want a proper burial for them."
At the same time the repatriation effort got underway, officials in southwestern Manitoba became interested in promoting Linear Mounds as part of a regional tourism-development strategy. Interest in North America's pre-contact history has increased in recent years, placing pressure on parks services on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border to better reflect indigenous history and culture.
"It started with groups in Melita who said 'This is a national historical site. Why isn't Parks Canada treating it the way they would other historic sites?'" Hems said. "Also there's been more emphasis to not only protect things, but to be more effective to communicate to the public why these places are nationally significant."
In North Dakota, the U.S. National Parks Service keeps Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site open all year, with the blessing of the descendents of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara who inhabited the site until 19th century. In northwestern Ontario, the Anishinabe of Rainy River First Nation allowed the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung interpretive centre to open alongside the riverside structures known as the Manitou Mounds.
In southwestern Manitoba, however, Dakota elders are not enamoured with the idea of tourism at Linear Mounds. According to Ritchie, this is partly because of the aversion to showing burial sites to outsiders and partly due to the differences between pre-contact mound-builders and modern Dakota traditions.
Behind all this lurks long-standing and entirely rational indigenous fears of exploitation at the hands of the broader community, he suggests.
"The general aboriginal perception of most business-native relationships is that business will benefit and the aboriginal community will not," he writes.
In other words, do not expect to visit Linear Mounds National Historic Site any time soon. What may be possible in the future is a visit to some form of interpretive centre located away from the site, ideally developed and staffed by Dakota in co-operation with Parks Canada.
Ritchie believes such a centre may be acceptable to all parties, especially if it draws attention to all the mounds in southwestern Manitoba as well as the 10,000-year indigenous presence in this corner of the province.
But he fears mineral-rights holders in the region may not wish to promote this cultural heritage because they fear discoveries of new mounds or artifacts could dissuade oil exploration.
But any talk of heritage interpretation even vaguely related to Linear Mounds is premature before the human remains taken from the site are repatriated. That is the basic demand for Manitoba's Dakota nations, who by and large want Parks Canada to continue protecting the site.
Ottawa respects the Dakota position and will not make any move toward opening up Linear Mounds without the blessing of the Dakota nations, said Marilyn Peckett, superintendent of Parks Canada's Manitoba Field Unit, which won't promote the site in any way, shape or form until the remains are repatriated.
For now, Ritchie tells people interested in the mounds to visit the reservoir southeast of Boissevain.
"I don't blame Parks Canada for taking a step back and saying, 'whoa, this is a mess,' " he said. "Their view is (development) can only make it worse. And they're right."
-- With files from Matt Goerzen of the Brandon Sun.