Bronson Park Mound
Native American Ceremonial Ground
The following text was compiled by John Shagonaby, David Benac, Elspeth Inglis, Pam O’Connor, Joseph Helzer, Barbara Brose, David S. Brose, and Jenifer Blouin Policelli. The original project, funded in part by the Michigan Humanities Council in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, contains information provided by the City of Kalamazoo in cooperation with the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish band of the Pottawatomi.
Ancient American Indian Mounds
When Europeans first entered North America they encountered large earthen mounds, many with elaborate buildings on them. Built over centuries, southeastern American Indian tribes in the 1700s were still using the mounds for rituals that included political transitions, agricultural celebrations, cosmological worship, or, occasionally sacred human burials (see note 1).
During the Colonial Era and the Federal Period, as settlers filled the forests and plains from the Ohio and Upper Mississippi River Valleys and the Great Lakes, they encountered more of these ancient mounds and earthworks. Having been forcibly relocated to those regions from their ancestral homes, few of the American Indian tribes in the southern Great Lakes claimed to have built the mounds. The early settlers mistakenly attributed the mound to Vikings, ancient Phoenicians and Israelites, or a lost race of “Mound Builders.” Because they contained metal artifacts, most thought the American Indians were too primitive to have built them.
But by the late 19th century extensive scientific research and unbiased study of American Indian legends and oral histories demonstrated that midwestern mounds and earthworks, like those in the southeast, were the work of the ancestors of the American Indian tribes that had been encountered there.
The Tribal Land Foundation describes how these ancient mounds hold cultural values tied to their traditional lands for nearly all American Indian nations and peoples. The mounds are thus are a critical base for spiritual practices, beliefs, and worship. Maintaining strong cultural and spiritual ties to the land is necessary for preserving traditional practices and American Indian religious beliefs for future generations.
As in ancient times, present-day American Indian mounds can be a keeper of memories, a portal to the spirit world, or a place to go for guidance and strength. For these reasons, American Indian tribes object to the destruction of ancient mounds by real or imagined looters and curio collectors. And like many other tribes, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Pottawatomi oppose the disrespect of their cultural values through destructive archaeological sciences and uninformed museum displays (see note 2). Since 1990 the Federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has mandated the return of sacred artifacts and remains from such sites to the responsible American Indian tribes.
Mound in Bronson Park
One of the factors conditioning Iannelli’s choice of an American Indian theme for his new fountain may have been the presence in Bronson Park of a Native American mound. A recent Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission brochure stated, “. . . the best-known mound in the County is in Bronson Park in the heart of the city of Kalamazoo. Originally the mound had a diameter of fifty-eight feet at its base, a height of four feet nine inches and was in the form of a perfect circle.”
According to the Kalamazoo Public Library’s archives, “The mound was first excavated in 1832 by E. Lakin Brown and Cyrus Lovell, whose investigation revealed nothing.” In the 1840s the County jail used the unfilled excavation hole in the center of the mound for a root cellar. Then, “… in the early 1850s, local businessman Alexander J. Sheldon took on the responsibility of restoring the mound, which had been damaged over the years. During the process, he buried a time capsule containing coins, information about his time, and issues of the Kalamazoo Telegraph, which he published. A century later, Alexis Praus, director of the Kalamazoo Public Museum and Nicholas Kik, superintendent of parks, re-excavated the center of the mound. They recovered the time capsule and discovered [what they assumed was] the outline of a grave. A new time capsule took the place of the original with the intention that it remain until 2054.”
The Preservation Commission noted that from the time of Bronson Park’s creation, it has been the site of celebrations and public meetings. In 1856, Abraham Lincoln, then an attorney, spoke at a political rally in the park, possibly from a platform built atop the mound near the southwest corner of the park. In later years Stephen A. Douglas, William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt may also have spoken to Kalamazoo citizens from the mound or from a bandstand. Later, John Kennedy spoke to the Bronson Park crowds from the steps of City Hall and Robert Kennedy spoke from those at the County Courthouse.
The present surface of the mound has been restored by Park employees. While there is no current evidence to link the Bronson Park mound to any specific prehistoric time period, use, or cultural group, only the center of the mound has been significantly disturbed; and modern, non-destructive, archaeological investigations have never been conducted (see note 3).
1. The mounds of the Midwest
As early as 3500 years ago, American Indians’ traditional knowledge of differing environments led them to develop a unique North American agricultural complex; fostering prehistoric trade between and within the tribes across the eastern United States. Plants, ceremonial practices, domestic spearpoints and pottery, and artifacts of unusual form and exotic materials were exchanged; and within more complex societies, earthen mounds were constructed. Some mounds were for burials and some were built over and/or under buildings of different uses, including rituals. Elaborate copper, silver, obsidian and mica artifacts have been found in the “Ohio Hopewell” mounds of Ohio built between 250 BCE and 350 CE, and in related mounds along the Gulf Coast and across the southern midwest.
Of the scattered mound groups in southern Michigan, only a few along the Grand and Muskegon Rivers have had careful excavation or analyses. These show that they were built between 100 BCE and 200 CE and were linked to Hopewell-like complexes of Illinois, somewhat unlike those in Ohio. Also, the small number of mounds in the Upper Peninsula are related to somewhat later cultures from Minnesota to western New York.
Between 700 and 1000 CE groups of animal-shaped or conical mounds were built from Oklahoma to southwestern Wisconsin. Along the lower Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama Rivers large flat-topped rectangular mounds served as platforms for rebuilding a series of temples. Some were still in use as late as 1720 but the greatest number had been built around 1100 CE and had been abandoned before 1500 CE.
No mounds of that type are found in Michigan but a few isolated ditch-and-embankment earthen circles and a number of geometric raised garden beds were found across the prairies of southern Michigan and Wisconsin, and in north-central Illinois and Indiana. These date to the period between 1350 AD and 1500: they were made by American Indian agricultural tribes which then occupied those regions, including ancestors of Algonquian-speaking groups such as the Miami, Illinois, and Anishinabe. Late 19th century historians noted a number of those geometric garden beds in Kalamazoo on the oak openings south of the Bronson Park mound. However, there is no suggestion that there was a circle of cedar trees anywhere in the vicinity of the mound prior to the late 19th century.
2. The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Pottawatomi
First recorded as the Nation of Fire in the area from northern Lake Huron to southwestern Lake Superior, by 1680 culturally related Anishinabe tribes were identified as the Ojibwa (Chippewa) who had also occupied eastern lower Michigan, the Adwada (Ottawa), who had also moved to northwestern Michigan, and the Pottawatomi who were expanding around southern and western Lake Michigan. Throughout two centuries of colonial conflict, the villages of these three tribes were pushed to French and British forts and trading posts. After the American Revolution the Federal Government opened their lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains to American settlers. In spite of their united resistance to the new settlements, the Anishinabe and other tribes were defeated, and in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville ceded to the U.S. their lands east of the Wabash and Miami Rivers, giving up millions of acres of forests, lake shores, and river valleys.
In 1807 and 1821 the Pottawatomi ceded their lands in lower Michigan to the Michigan Territory, reserving tracts near Dowagiac for the Pokagon Band, along the Nottawa‐seppe for the Huron Band, and a 9‐square mile block along the Kalamazoo River for the Match‐E‐Be‐Nash‐She‐Wish Band. But in 1827, to move the Pottawatomi away from the Detroit‐Chicago Road, the Michigan Territorial Government reclaimed the Match‐E‐Be‐Nash‐She‐Wish Reservation. While the Indian Removal Act of 1830 required non‐reservation Native Americans to relocate west of the Mississippi River, the Match‐E‐Be‐Nash‐She‐Wish band never abandoned this area. While some left on the Trail of Death to Kansas, by 1840 most of the Match‐E‐Be‐Nash‐She‐Wish band members had moved to small farms near Gun Lake, 20 ‐ 30 miles north of their former Kalamazoo home. Federal recognition of the Match‐E‐Be‐Nash‐She‐Wish band of Pottawatomi on August 23, 1999, acknowledged the band’s continuous presence in southwest Michigan. The Gun Lake band remains a culturally and economically important participant in the region to this day.
3. New Archaeological Methods
Over the past thirty-five years archaeology has applied a spectrum of new scientific methods and techniques to fieldwork and laboratory analysis. Earlier field methods used shovels, trowels, and even palette knives to expose the buried remains of structures and activity surfaces and to recover the diagnostic artifacts that identified the time and the ethnic identity of those who had used the places and spaces. But even when carefully used with detailed written and photographic recording, those tools destroyed the geological and cultural layers that incorporated the archaeological remains; and they frequently missed tiny changes in the soils themselves … changes that future techniques could use to understand subtle environmental and chronological information.
Today, archaeologists use electronic devices first developed by military and intelligence agencies, such as laser-assisted ground-penetrating radar or computer-linked electrical resistivity surveys. They can create fine-scale maps of differing substance densities, soil layers’ chemical components and sedimentary structure, and relative moisture characteristics of pits, post-holes, walls and fireplaces; all without disturbing the site.
Edited by Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2020.