Park Service Construction Damaged Native American Burial Sites National Park Service officials approved $3 million in illegal construction projects over a decade that damaged one of the nation's most sacred Indian burial sites in northeast Iowa.
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Park Service Construction Damaged Native American Burial Sites

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Park Service Construction Damaged Native American Burial Sites

Park Service Construction Damaged Native American Burial Sites

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Three million dollars' worth of illegal construction projects went on for a decade at one of the nation's most sacred Native American burial grounds. This happened in northeast Iowa at the Effigy Mounds National Monument. And it happened under the watch of the National Park Service.

The park didn't do the proper archaeological studies before installing an intricate boardwalk system that now encircles ancient burial mounds. As Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports, the challenge now is how to clean it up.

CLAY MASTERS: I'm surrounded by bluffs up here at Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa. I'm walking across a bridge over the Yellow River. Yellow and red leaves are falling from the trees. I'm less than a mile from the Mississippi River. And this bridge is pretty big. You could definitely drive an all-terrain vehicle across the thing. And it's made of some pretty solid stuff. Here, let me knock on this. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

TIM MASON: I will not rest the rest of my days until all this junk is removed

MASTERS: That's Tim Mason. He used to work here among these ancient Native American mounds, some in the shape of bears. Others look like birds. Ask Mason his title and this is what you get.

MASON: Tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping, hell raiser.

MASTERS: Mason grew up here. Now he's retired. He has no hair except for a thick mustache. And for 19 years, he held a lot of different jobs at the monument, from laborer to park ranger.

During visits to the park after retiring, he'd see these boardwalks and other structures going in. Mason filed a complaint that sparked a criminal investigation by a park service special agent.

MASON: They had collaborators at every level in the regional office and the national office. And they were securing funds. They weren't doing the checks. They were violating federal and state law to build all this junk.

MASTERS: Nobody that was responsible for the damage is still employed here. A National Park Service spokesman says they're creating a corrective plan that will make sure something like this never happens again.

Jim Nepstad is the monument's new superintendent. Standing on one of these boardwalks that were intended to make the monument handicapped accessible, Nepstad says it's important for him not to make the same mistake when trying to fix the problem.

JIM NEPSTAD: Let's involve the public. Let's involve the state historic preservation office. Let's involve our tribal partners and make sure that everybody has a voice before we just go in and wholesale rip everything out.

MASTERS: Nepstad says it's going to take time to figure out just what to do. Jonathan Buffalo is the historic preservation director at the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa. He's quick to point out while it's not his ancestors buried in these mounds, what's happening here speaks to a more fundamental issue traced back to when Europeans first came to America.

JONATHAN BUFFALO: The feeling of ownership of our very human remains, the ownership of our artifacts, the ownership of basic knowledge of who we are, what we are, where we come from.

MASTERS: Buffalo thinks the right thing will ultimately be done, though he too is not sure what that will be. One thing's for certain though, everyone here will be closely watching how a federal agency with a mission of preserving artifacts undoes its own construction that many view as desecration. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.

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