Thursday, February 18, 2016

Western Wisconsin: How Native American People Lived in the Past-Part 3

 In this month’s newsletter, we will wrap up our series of articles about the Effigy Mound Builders.  In our two January newsletters, we introduced this group of prehistoric people who once lived in our area. Our interest in this topic started last year when I discovered Effigy Burial Mounds on our farm.  We’ve enjoyed exploring and learning more about these people with our friend and neighbor, Jim Theler, who is an archeologist.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to read the first two articles in our series, we invite you to either take a look at our blog or refer to our January newsletters on our website.  In this third and final article, Jim helps us understand more about the social aspects of the Effigy Mound Builders.  These people had an interesting way of organizing their community and people.  Jim will also help us understand how the burial mounds they built fit into their culture.
—Richard de Wilde

    Part 3:  Social Structure & the Importance of Burial Mounds

by Jim Theler
In our last article we learned that the Effigy Mound people lived for most of their time hunting and gathering wild resources.  They moved seasonally to take advantage of different animals, plants and resources.  They were organized by family groups, or “bands” as described by anthropologists.

For most of the year, small groups or “micro-bands” composed of a few related families lived and worked together. They might have a total of 15 to 30 people, with the adult males related by blood and women marrying into the micro-band from other groups. These groups were “egalitarian,” meaning all people were born having equal status, but followed cultural roles based on age and sex. Inherited ranks with positions such as “chiefs” were not present in Effigy Mound times.

Prehistoric Cave Art Depicting a Pregnant Deer.
Photo sourced from Mississippi Valley Archaeology Society
Hunting, which was primarily a male responsibility, was certainly an important part of their survival.  However, their survival depended on much more than just hunting!  Survival in these long-ago times was dependent upon the cooperation of men and women working towards a common goal and women played roles that were every bit as vital as those of men. In addition to caring for children and teaching them essential skills, they prepared hides of deer and other animals, made clothing, collected medicinal and edible wild plants, gathered firewood, cooked and prepared food for storage, made mats and other important items and kept the camp in shape.  They also made fine pottery vessels for cooking and water storage.

For most of the ancient past, and until nearly the end of the Effigy Mound period, the small winter micro-bands of Western Wisconsin moved to the Mississippi or Wisconsin River valleys for the summer and sometimes formed larger groups called “macro-bands.”   A small band of related families who spent a winter together in a rock shelter certainly looked forward to the arrival of warm weather and an opportunity to migrate. The stress of surviving the winter was over, and living was much easier. Fish, mussels and small game were readily available in the river valleys and there was not much need for large quantities of firewood.  Everyone knew that groups of related families would meet at a particular location at a certain time in the late spring.  These newly formed macro-bands would be composed of 200 to 500 people.  All these groups were held together by kinship through blood or marriage.

There are several reasons they formed these larger gatherings or macro-bands.     First, stresses build up in any group of related families who are working closely together by necessity, and these stresses need to be relieved. In historic times, we know these small micro-bands would often reorganize themselves when they arrived at a macro-band gathering. Thus, members of one micro-band who were unhappy could simply say good-bye to that group and move in with another relative’s group.

Second, any individual of marital age would be hard pressed to find a suitable mate in the small winter group. All human groups have incest taboos and prohibitions on whom one can and cannot marry.  Anthropologists who have studied this situation refer to “mating-networks” that need 200 or more people to have enough potential mates available. A macro-band of 500 people or two macro-bands that might come together would be the best scenario. In historic times, these large gatherings were a time of celebration. Young people were excited to see friends again and perhaps someone who was of interest for marriage. Old friendships were renewed, accounts of births, who had survived the winter, successful hunts and tragedies recounted.

Third, people who died during the winter were typically not buried at the winter rock shelter location.  Rock shelters having hundreds or thousands of years of repeated cool season occupations seldom have human burials.  Archaeologists believe the remains of the dead were kept until they could be brought to the summer gathering for final burial.  When effigy mounds were excavated in the earlier 20th century, they often contained both bundles of human bones as well as extended burials where bones were found articulated, indicating in-flesh burials. If relatives died at a winter camp, their remains were cared for and brought to summer macro-band gathering.  This way all could pay their respects and provide a proper burial for the deceased. These burial ceremonies were a unifying activity for the greater group.

As late fall approached, the macro-band dispersed and the reorganized micro-bands made their way back into the rugged interior of western Wisconsin. Rather than returning to the location where they had spent the previous winter, they would probably select another valley for their winter camp. Selection was important, and people needed to be spaced out on the landscape so as not to over use the deer and firewood resources.

By A.D. 900 the world of the Effigy Mound people was changing.  Best estimates indicate there were probably five macro-bands in eastern Wisconsin and four in the western part of the state with perhaps a total population of 3,000 people for the southern half of Wisconsin.  The population had grown and the annual cycle of winter dispersal and summer congregation into macro-bands no longer worked. Effigy Mound people begin to occupy interior valleys year round. Archaeologists believe the landscape had become “packed” to capacity with humans, resulting in overhunting of deer likely precipitated by the effectiveness of the bow and arrow.

The first appearance of corn horticulture is seen in the region during this time as well. Cultivation of corn is something people did in the ancient past only if they must. Farming is hard work, and the yields from growing and protecting small plots of corn from animals are small. Corn, which is resistant to decay once carbonized through burning, has been found at both Effigy Mound living sites on the Mississippi River and in the interior sites of the Bad Axe River Valley.  During this same time period, river mussels along the Mississippi also were harvested by the hundreds of thousands and may have been dried as a winter food, another sign of “resource stress.”
Prehistoric Cave Art Depicting a Spring Hunt.
Photo sourced from

The flexibility and mobility of a hunting and gathering people moving from one valley to another in different years was lost. Deer populations were reduced and firewood became increasingly scarce.  Effigy Mounds, previously confined to the major river valleys suitable for macro-band gatherings, began to be built in the interior valleys.

Effigy mounds served a number of functions. First, they are burial places of the dead.  They were built in the form of an animal, which carried additional information.  In many Native American societies people are born into a clan, a group of related families or lineages.  Clans often have a totem animal, eg Bear Clan, Eagle Clan or Deer Clan. Each clan has certain assigned tasks and ritual responsibilities. Your clan affiliation also provides clear guidelines, as a Bear Clan person could not marry another Bear Clan member. Archaeologists believe the effigy mounds are sacred burial places and that they were meant to be seen. Burial mounds in the shape of a particular animal convey the information that this land is held by a particular clan group. It was the equivalent of a “No Trespassing sign.” In the North and South forks of the Bad Axe River(the location of Harmony Valley Farm), effigy mounds were built on the sidewalls of valleys, ridge tops, and terraces to be seen by the living and to declare to those who might pass by, “Beware: this land is held and defended.” Archaeologists speculate that this Effigy Mound building after about A.D. 900 was brought on by increasing resource stress and the need to protect their area.

Between about A.D. 1000 and 1050 the Effigy Mound people appear to have abandoned western Wisconsin. The best explanation is that the deer herd had been greatly reduced, perhaps at the end of a final severe winter with deep snow—the sort that was described for western Wisconsin in the 1850s. Decisions at such time would be difficult.  Imagine your people are hungry, a few deer are yarded in the creek bottom and you can kill them with ease.  Out of necessity, you kill the deer.  One deep cave in Crawford County has ancient paintings, drawn by torch light in a style we believe to have been used in Effigy Mound times.  The paintings show bowmen surrounding a group of deer. None of the deer have antlers and their tails are up in the alert posture.  Several of these are shown with fetal deer drawn in them. This painting seems to portray an early spring hunt and such a killing of pregnant does would seem to be an act of desperation for people so knowledgeable about their natural world.

After A.D. 1050, Effigy Mound sites no longer appear in western Wisconsin. The state’s remaining effigy mounds, sacred site holding the remains of the dead, are visible reminders of this long-ago time.
Richard’s Closing Thoughts:
We are grateful for the dedicated and meticulous work of the many archeologists who have devoted lifetimes to uncover and piece together the lives of those peoples that lived here on our land for over 12,000 years before us.  We are in awe of the intelligent, resourceful and spiritual human beings who lived here so many years ago and their ability to tread lightly in this place.  Our goal is to not only preserve the burial mounds on our land that we’ve become stewards of, but to also consider it our challenge to live in such a way so as to maintain our land in a similar fashion.  In doing so, we hope it will continue to sustain us and our descendants for generations beyond us.  

Cookbook Review: The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook

by Andrea Yoder

I have a weakness for cookbooks, especially ones with beautiful pictures of vegetables and recipes written from the heart.  Last week I visited Minneapolis, MN and enjoyed lunch at my favorite restaurant, The Birchwood Café.  I’ve loved this place since the first time I went there.  It’s a comfortable, warm & welcoming spot with food you can trust.  As I was standing in line debating the turkey burger with creamed kale or the black bean quinoa burger, I looked up and saw a cookbook on the counter.  There was a copy labeled “café copy” that diners could take to their table to peruse.  I had no idea The Birchwood had published a cookbook and found myself snatching it up quickly before someone else in line spotted it!  I flipped through the pages as I enjoyed my lunch, then returned the book before I left and traded it in for my own copy to take home!

So here are just a few reasons I like this cookbook and encourage you to consider adding this to your own collection.  First, the book very much represents the same heart and passion you feel when you walk into the café.  Makes sense since the book was written by café owner Tracy Singleton and Executive Chef Marshall Paulsen.  The opening pages of the book include a message from Tracy and are entitled “An Invitation to Cook.”  The Birchwood serves “Good Real Food.”  According to Tracy, this means sourcing, preparing, and serving food with gratitude for the ingredients themselves as well as those who produce them and make it possible to get them to the café.  Good Real Food is food that is fresh, locally sourced, sustainably produced, organic and handled with respect for the land, animals and people.  Throughout the book they highlight a handful of farmers and producers who regularly supply produce, meat, fish and more for the café.  Our friends, Gail and Maurice Smith of DragSmith Farms, are featured in this cookbook.  While we don’t supply the café directly, Gail and Maurice have an extensive delivery route to Twin Cities restaurants and deliver our produce on our behalf.  Check out the picture of Maurice on page 18 and you’ll see a box of our produce on the back of his van!

Another reason I really like this book is that it is based on Midwestern seasons.  While we think there are four seasons, according to the Birchwood there are actually 8 seasons in the year including “Scorch,” which represents the heat of the summer, and “Thaw” which signals the end of winter and the transition into spring.  Chef Marshall’s recipes represent ingredients featured and savored in their peak season of availability.  In his words “We enjoy so much of our produce when it’s in season and available locally.  Anything we can’t preserve, we anxiously await its return next season.”  I can’t wait to make his recipe for an Heirloom Tomato Sweet Corn BLT in the summer.  In the meantime, I’m going to try his recipe in the “Winter” section for Apple & Turnip Quiche.

The final reason I really appreciate this book is the approach Tracy and Marshall take to sharing their passion and recipes.  In the “Using This Cookbook” section at the beginning of the book, they state:  “We attempted to make these recipes as user-friendly as possible, so we were careful to keep them simple, avoiding lengthy steps and hard-to-find ingredients…..We hope this book will inspire you to cook, Birchwood style.  The recipes are guidelines, so taste, adjust, and make them your own!”  And that is what cooking is all about--drawing on inspiration from the ingredients you have and simply using a recipe as a roadmap to guide you as you create simple, tasty meals that are nourishing to not only your body but also your soul.  Tracy & Marshall, thank you for sharing the spirit of The Birchwood with us in this book.  Job well done!

If you’d like a copy of The Birchwood Café Cookbook, stop in at the café for lunch and take one home with you!  If you can’t make it for lunch, you can also purchase it on their website,