Iowa monument continues to recover stolen human remains
HARPERS FERRY — David Barland-Liles wishes his place of employment was known only for its magic, rather than also for the crime he helped solve.
But if the story of the park superintendent who stole human remains sparks public interest in Effigy Mounds National Monument, so much the better, he thinks.
“This place has endured,” said Barland-Liles, the park’s lead ranger. “It’s magic. It will always be magic.”
Located in Allamakee and Clayton counties, the national monument contains the largest concentration of effigy mounds in the world.
Within its borders are more than 200 earth mounds, between 700 and 2,500 years old. Some are in the shapes of animals, while others are conical and were used for burials.
The Telegraph Herald reports that 20 federally recognized Native American tribes are affiliated with the site, and many consider it sacred ground.
“Our oldest stories have us up in that area from the time before we were human beings, even — when we were the different clans, the different animals who became human beings,” said Lance Foster, tribal historic preservation officer of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska.
The effigy mounds reflect the different shapes of the clans and ancestors who were there, he said.
“Some of the mounds, of course, have sleepers in them — people who were buried there who still live on, in a sense, in those places as guardians,” Foster said.
But the sleepers’ rest was interrupted. And the efforts to return the remains to tribes for reburial continue.
As the Mississippi Valley was settled in the 1800s, farmers often plowed over mounds that dotted the landscape.
Even after Effigy Mounds National Monument was established in 1949, archaeologists performed excavations in the park, removing human remains and the artifacts with which they were buried.
Discoveries were added to the park’s collection and sometimes displayed in its visitor center.
By the 1970s, Native American civil rights groups spoke out against the practice of excavating burials. At their urging, Iowa passed a Native American graves protection law in 1976 — the first state in the nation to do so.
The federal government would follow suit in 1990 with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.
The law requires federal agencies and federally funded museums to inventory and identify American Indian remains and cultural items in their collections and to consult with tribes regarding repatriation.
The change was unwelcome news to Thomas Munson, who served as Effigy Mounds’ superintendent from 1971 to 1994.
A federal investigation conducted in 2011 and 2012 would reveal that, in 1990, Munson stole the remains of 41 people from the museum’s collection.
Munson and another employee loaded two boxes containing more than 2,000 bones into his car. He brought them to his home in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and he stored them in his garage.
Barland-Liles, then a special agent with the Investigative Services Branch of the U.S. National Park Service, was tasked with finding the missing bones. It took him about seven months.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa decided to prosecute. Munson pleaded guilty in 2016 to embezzling government property.
“To thwart the law . Munson decided to remove skeletal prehistoric human remains from the museum collection in an attempt to maintain possession of any associated funerary objects that might otherwise follow the human remains back to a tribe,” stated a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office following his sentencing.
The judge ordered that Munson apologize publicly; serve 10 consecutive weekends in jail, 12 months’ supervised probation and one year of home confinement; complete 100 hours of community service; and pay $108,905 in restitution and a $3,000 fine.
In his written apology, Munson stated that he “knowingly removed these items from the monument and hid them for over 20 years . in a mistaken effort to avoid the obligations imposed by NAGPRA.”
He could not be reached by the Telegraph Herald for comment for this story.
Foster, the tribal historic preservation officer, observes a “strange difference” between American Indian and “non-Indian culture.”
The latter sees things “as things, rather than as parts of a larger whole,” he said. “Once you collect things of status, (you are) positioning yourself socially with your peers. That’s the root of museums. That’s the root of collecting. Indian people, that’s really not part of our culture.”
The human remains are stored in drawers and locked cabinets, in much the same manner they were held before Munson’s theft.
“It’s our version of Fort Knox,” Barland-Liles said. “It’s layer upon layer of security to protect these people and their journey.”
The remains and objects must be held until NPS staff fulfill legal requirements that govern repatriation, but the process has been complicated by two factors.
When he took them, Munson separated the bones from their associated funerary objects. Some bones also were broken and fragmented.
Adding to NPS staff’s difficulty is the spottiness and absence of historical documentation that would indicate from which mound the remains and funerary objects were excavated.
Albert LeBeau, cultural resource program manager at Effigy Mounds, oversees the park’s museum collection and supervises an NPS technician who presently is locating and scouring records.
Under NAGPRA, tribes can make claims to “cultural items” with which they can show a relationship of lineal descent or cultural affiliation. Any tribe with such a relationship has the final say about the disposition of cultural items.