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Investigation: National Park Service Long Ignored Preservation Laws In Desecrating Sacred Ground At Effigy Mounds National Monument

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Footers 4 feet deep were sunk into a mound for a boardwalk. Since this photo was taken, the footers were cut even with the mound top./NPS

Ancestral burial grounds and ceremonial mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa considered sacred by a dozen Native American tribes were desecrated by National Park Service managers who "clearly knew what they were doing was against the law" during a decade-long campaign of building boardwalks and trails across the monument grounds, according to a voluminous investigation.

Though news of the actual damage to archaeological sites in the national monument surfaced in 2010, details of the just-unearthed investigation point to a longstanding disregard or ignorance of state and federal laws created to protect this country's archaeological resources.

Phyllis Ewing, who as the monument's superintendent was ultimately responsible for the work, was transferred to a position in the regional office not long after the desecration came to light. Earlier this year she was fired, a move she reportedly is challenging. Tom Sinclair, the monument's maintenance chief under Superintendent Ewing who was its de facto cultural resources compliance officer, also is no longer with the National Park Service.

Working to right the Park Service's image with area residents and members of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, the Upper Sioux Community of Minnesota, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in the state of Minnesota, the Lower Sioux Indian Community in the state of Minnesota, the Prairie island Indian Community in the state of Minnesota, the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma is Jim Nepstad, who was appointed superintendent at the monument in 2011.

"Even before I got to the park we acknowledged to people that we had some bad things happen at Effigy Mounds and that a lot of it was the result of poor or non-existent communication, whether that was with the SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) or the tribes or with the general public, even amongst the staff of the park. That was going to be the one thing that I was going to work on," Superintendent Nepstad said Saturday during a phone call. "By being open and transparent, I think, admitting to what happened, not trying to blindly defend it, I think we've been able to make quite a bit of progress."

The matter resurfaced Saturday when documents obtained by Friends of Effigy Mounds and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility through a Freedom of Information Act request were made public. Key was the 703-page investigative report compiled by National Park Service Special Agent David Barland-Liles that traced problems back to 2001. 

Tim Mason, a seasonal ranger at Effigy Mounds for 19 years and currently head of Friends of Effigy Mounds, had worked to bring attention to the matter for years. In 2010 he asked the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General to look into the matter, only to be told "the issues raised would be better addressed by the National Park Service."

On Saturday during a telephone call he said he couldn't understand why the National Park Service allowed the illegal acts at the monument to go on for so many years.

"That is the most perplexing question of the whole malfeasance," he said, charging that Superintendent Ewing and Chief Sinclair were focused on "empire building" through the projects. "They were left to run wild for years and years."

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis had no comment on the matter, his spokesperson said Monday.

While Special Agent Barland-Liles didn't file a formal report, according to PEER, he did present it to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a decision was made not to prosecute either Ms. Ewing or Mr. Sinclair, said Superintendent Nepstad.

The agent's investigation, built on interviews with monument and regional office staff, memorandums, personnel documents, and budget documents, provided a paper trail leading to Ms. Ewing and Mr. Sinclair. That trail indicated that park staff failed to conduct the required archaeological assessments and consultations with state and tribal officials before proceeding with the projects. In some cases, the documents show, compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act was done after the fact.

In one interview, the associate regional director for cultural resources in the Park Service's Midwest Region Office told the special agent that, "We've tried to understand how a park could behave so badly...Wherever they had a chance to screw up, they did." The official, whose name was redacted from the document, added that the various projects "destroyed" the park and that it would take decades to repair the actual damage as well as the Park Service's reputation.

The Midwest Region's cultural resources specialist told Special Agent Barland-Liles that, "Effigy Mounds went to the extreme and did whatever they wanted to do. ... There was clear intent to circumvent the law by people who are at a high enough level to know better. I can't explain why they did what they did but they clearly knew what they were doing was against the law."

Effigy Mounds National Monument was established in 1949 specifically to protect and preserve more than 200 Native American mound sites along the Mississippi River, some of which date back almost 2,000 years. Among the mounds are "31 effigy mounds in the shapes of birds and bears. These mounds are examples of a signifiant phase of mound-building culture, commemorating the passing of loved ones and the sacred beliefs of these ancient peoples," Park Service manuals note.

During Superintendent Ewing's tenure, an estimated $3 million worth of boardwalks, trails, and other infrastructures were built without the required archaeological assessments, the investigation shows. In some cases, boardwalks were built over a road more than 100 years old that dated to the Mississippi steamboat era and along and over mounds; landscape contractors used mechanical augers to dig holes near the visitor center atop potential archaeological sites before surveys were done, and; had, against regional directives, buried Native American remains unconnected with tribes associated with Effigy Mounds into the monument's Three Mounds.

In the wake of the construction in 2007 of a shop building, one of the monument's rangers asked Chief Ranger Kenneth Block if the requisite archaeological assessments had been done.

"As I think you had suspected, the building was simply put up with no thought to get ARPA (Archaeological Resources Protection Act) approval BEFORE construction," the chief ranger replied in a letter.

An October 2009 letter from then-Regional Director Ernie Quintana to Superintendent Ewing questioned her approach to projects that could disturb archaeological resources. A site evaluation by an associate regional director "determined that there were several major violations of the NHPA from 2001 through 2007," wrote the regional director. "Specifically, the (evaluation) found the park did not follow the compliance procedures of NEPA or Section 106 of the NHPA in building new trails, replacing trail bridges, building a maintenance structure, and constructing an interpretive exhibit. These violations were exacerbated by the fact that they had major, adverse impacts to cultural landscapes and a strong likelihood of having adverse impacts to  aboriginal American Indian structures that the park was established to protect."

A Park Service memorandum following a meeting with tribal representatives in November of that year noted that the tribes "were fairly angry about the boardwalks, and one (representative) even asked why ancient cemeteries should be treated as places to walk your dog. A tribal representative who participated in some (General Management Plan) sessions said they did not like the boardwalks but they had been told that NPS considered them necessary. Several tribal representatives felt that damage has been done and their views would not be considered."

Superintendent Ewing, in her interview with Special Agent Barland-Liles, said she didn't realize proper compliance steps weren't being taken until the on-site evaluation by the associate regional director in 2009. Although records obtained by the special agent showed the superintendent had received some training on Section 106 requirements, she told him, "I really didn't know all these rules" required of superintendents and that she left compliance matters to Chief Sinclair.

In his interview with the special agent, Mr. Sinclair said he could not recall ever officially being designated as the monument's cultural resources compliance officer, and that he wasn't aware of all the procedures that needed to be followed when projects might impact archaeological sites. When asked what advice he would give to the U.S. Attorney's Office on the matter, he responded, "Have mercy."


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A hole was dug into a burial mound at the monument to "repatriate" remains from Native Americans despite their lack of ties to the site/PEER

Among the documents that surfaced with the investigation was an archaeological damage assessment made by a cultural resources management specialist from Buffalo National River. In it that specialist, Dr. Caven Clark, noted damage 2010 from construction of a boardwalk into the the Nazekaw Tenace area of the monument along the Yellow River. The path of the construction, which involved placement of 216 4-foot-deep holes dug for footers, went across the top of a mound, Dr. Clark noted. In a related memo from March 2011, Special Agent Barland-Liles recounted an interview he had with the historic preservation officer for the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma who told him she couldn't understand why the park would build a boardwalk into the Nazekaw Tenace area, saying it was "just wrong."

"Why would they think we would want that there," said the tribal officer, whose name was redacted from the report.

In January 2010, Mr. Quintana, who retired in 2011, wrote Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to inform him that the staff at Effigy Mounds "has been seriously at odds with the intent of the National Environmental Policy Act, and National Park Service policies pertaining to conservation planning and decisionmaking."

While Superintendent Ewing lost her authority under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act over such projects, Regional Director Quintana told the investigator he didn't fire her because he didn't think she had any "devious desire to do something wrong."

From his viewpoint, Superintendent Nepstad said what occurred at Effigy Mounds will be a lasting lesson for the Park Service.

"The actions themselves that led to all of this were unfortunate. I don't think the agency is trying to hide that," he said. "Everybody is disappointed with what happened at Effigy Mounds, and quite frankly it really, truly, and I say this with utter sincerity, it is going to be used, the case history surrounding the activities at Effigy Mounds, are going to be used as a teaching tool all across the National Park Service. The agency in all likelihood will be putting a blue ribbon team together to exhaustively go over what happened here. And what were the root causes, where were the contributing factors, what were the lessons learned that we can teach anybody that works for the National Park Service, whether it's at the park or region or Washington office level to prevent this kind of a thing from ever happening again anywhere."

Although impressed with Superintendent Nepstad -- "He's really wearing a white cowboy hat. He's one of the good guys." -- Mr. Mason said that regaining the Park Service's reputation at the monument will be a challenge.

"I was really proud of being a ranger and my role there. This has really stained, put a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths," said Mr. Mason, who added that the friends group wants the National Park Service's Washington office to "fast-track allocations from D.C. directly to the regional office, this calendar year, for no other purpose to remove all the illegally constructed boardwalks and decks. Clean that park up." 

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What a shameful incident. It will take time and hard work to fix what has been done both physically and culturally, but dealing with it straight ahead and open as they are now doing is the only way.

The only thing I find shocking about this is that somebody got fired.

I have visited Effigy Mounds, this about 10 years ago, it was a very interesting place, I do not recall any boardwalks, etc. I must admit, just based on the article above, I find it hard to believe high ranking officials were so clueless as to the requirements involved in doing what was done. Somebody was fast asleep at the wheel. The Supts. comments were also disconcerting, she just delegated all the responsible to a subordinate, never asked any questions, well, it certainly was malfeasance, intentional or not. I am also surprised a person would be appointed to this position at Effigy Mounds without some demonstrated expertise in the archeology (or at least some background in the field), this area was set aside for. 

I can't help but point out and feel a little bit of pride that all of this was brought to light by a seasonal park ranger who'd put in 19 seasons. Fortunatly he didn't stay in his place and keep out of managment business as some in the parkland watch set have intimated seasonals should do.


For those who wish to learn more about the dirty underside of the NPS I suggest reading The Case of the Indian Trader. This investigative book bares how corrupt the NPS was and still is in certain parks.

Actually, in this day in age, I am surprised that something this blatant could occur without direct intervention by those inside the NPS responsible for cultural resource protection.  My own concerns are similar to those expressed above by Ron Mackie.  How did this happen?  What qualifications and commitment to cultural resources protection did the park superintendent have prior to her appointment to this important position?  Why did it take a decade before action was taken to rectify this issue?


Prepare for some pushback here from the "NPS does no wrong" contingent. The corruption in this agency is documented and undeniable.  Except to those with ties to the NPS who have befitted from it.



Backpacker - I'm a supporter of the NPS, but I was the first comment on this thread and called the original situation 'shameful'. I am glad to see the daylight being focused on this by NPS management, even though it is so late. My wife works in cultural resources elsewhere and was shocked and dismayed when I showed her the article.


What is every bit as likely as your scenario, the NPS is always wrong contingent jumping in. Of course, it's easy for me to call something 'likely' when it is happening.

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