For this week’s discussion, I have decided to share my thoughts on a recent article about the Native American Burial Mounds at the Dickson Mounds Museum. Some background: this museum is a branch of the Illinois State Museum and currently contains at least 7,000 remains of Native Americans. In the 1920’s, a chiropractor, Don Dickson, started digging and discovered hundreds of burial sites. These sites were then monopolized upon, he created a roadside attraction that cost visitors 50 cents to enter and explore. In 1945, the State of Illinois purchased the property and for decades the remains were used to “teach schoolchildren, visitors and local residents about what the museum presented as a long-gone culture of Illinois Indians.” Only about 2% of those 7,000 remains have been returned to the tribal nations who could claim them under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The Dickson family burial mound exhibit in the 1940s 
Credit: Illinois Digital Archive, Illinois State Library

There is a direct connection between how predominantly white curators have categorized Indigenous peoples as part of “natural history” and how we are misrepresented in contemporary art spaces. As I was reading through this, it is mentioned that they were and still are using technology from 1673 to determine if they can find a connection between remains and tribes. What this means is that institutions are still flying under the radar per say, or that they are finding loopholes in the laws in order to deceive and avoid giving those remains and artifacts back to tribes. I always knew in the back of my head that museums and indigenous peoples do not get along, but this article really amplified that for me. It is mostly common knowledge that mandates around the repatriation of human remains and objects of cultural patrimony have prompted museums to consult with Native communities and recognize Native protocols in their work. But differing ideologies of care and collaboration between museum institutions and tribal communities remain a source of tension.

“She once wore a necklace of shells, but at some point, it was stolen. Someone misplaced her mandible. A man lay with two fishing hooks made of bone, and another had five arrows between his knees. A 2-year-old child was buried with a rattle made of mussel shells, but that, too, was lost.” The remains that were very carefully preserved and more than likely were buried with their tribe, were being stolen from and their bodies mutilated. “They weren’t actually looking at my ancestors as people.” Ancestors are the ones who created the possibility for the beginning of your life, and for them to be pushed aside and disrespected in such a way is incomprehensible. Viewing Indigenous peoples as historical, rather than contemporary and alive, makes it easier to build pipelines through our lands, appropriate our cultures for profit, and murder our women, girls and two-spirit kin. These problems in no way will not be solved overnight. Giving Native peoples a voice in the study of their heritage is the only way to heal the wounds of the past—and build the trust needed to move forward together with scientists toward a fuller understanding of the human story.

A protest against the museum’s open burials in the early 1990s 
Credit: Illinois Digital Archive, Illinois State Library

My question to you all is when you walk into a museum, do you have expectations or any bias already in mind just from the name of the museum?

Jaffe, L. (2023, January 27). The Museum built on Native American Burial Mounds. ProPublica. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from

4 Thoughts to ““The Museum Built on Native American Burial Mounds” – News Article”

  1. Korovin Ellis

    In general I have expectation for a museum, based on who owns the museum and how much the name is designed to appeal to tourists. Here in Fairbanks for example, there is a clear distinction in my expectations when visiting the museum of the North, which is a university museum, and which i expect to be fairly professional, compared to Pioneer Park which is intended as a tourist destination first and foremost.

  2. Angela Linn

    Kai, thank you so much for your presentation of this article, which I also happened to see this week. It really is shocking to read about the way people viewed and treated Indigenous burial mounds historically. Growing up in Iowa we often traveled to the Effigy Mounds National Monument ( to spend the day walking on the trails and learning about the people who created those sacred places. I was thankful they had been preserved despite the archaeological excavations that partially destroyed many of them.

    I’m really glad you brought up this problematic inclusion of Indigenous peoples in natural history museums – I actually hoped we would have time in our Meet Up to discuss it. This is a major focus of many museums now and we’re seeing some of the world’s largest museums bring in teams of Indigenous curators to lead them in a new direction. One of the most successful projects I’ve read about lately is that of the Field Museum in Chicago ( These actions demonstrate the power of cultural sovereignty and the sentiments put forth in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP: Museums can be a way to reach a lot of people with these sort of efforts.

  3. Maxine Laberge

    Kai I am really glad that you have brought this topic to the table and I agree with Angie that I hope we eventually have time to touch on this topic in our discussion. Moving to Alaska, I thought for sure that UAMN would employ or work closely with a/an Indigenous Curators. I have not heard of anything like that at UAMN and I am curious as to why this is. It seems integral to the collection and work that we do.

  4. MoHagani Magnetek

    Wow Kai. This article hurt my heart. It is absolutely discussing that the first thought was to monetized and the remains of the indigenous ancestors and then for the state funded museum to continue this disrespect under the guise of teaching and tourism. I do hope all 7,000 of these ancestors make their way back home to their tribes. I do my best to not walk into any place with any preconceived notions because I know names and titles can often be misleading or misrepresent.

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