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Mounds, Mythology and Meanings

Merle Frommelt describes how Effigy Mounds NM interprets American Indian culture and midwestern cultural landscape in the classroom.

(photo) Group of teachers at Marching Bear group at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Teacher's workshop 2004 visitors with ranger exploring the Marching Bear group at Effigy Mounds National Monument. (Ken Block)

When was the last time you woke up to nature’s alarm clock or filled your day with the never-ending beauty of spring’s shimmering green colors? How about wandering through a prairie and really taking a good look at the prairie floor?

In May 2005, 53 teachers and some of their spouses did just that and much more during the annual teachers’ workshop at Effigy Mounds NM entitled, “Mounds, Mythology and Meaning: Interpretation of American Indian Culture and the Midwestern Cultural Landscape in the Classroom Setting.”

Providing teachers this kind of opportunity rewards those willing to take the challenge. Interpreting the past to anyone can be a real hard sell, especially when all you have are prehistoric mounds and the sacred land on which they were built. Doing this for school age youngsters becomes more of a challenge. Having been with the NPS for many years as a seasonal ranger and having taken hundreds of school groups on tours through this sacred landscape, I and several colleagues realized that something else was needed. Being a retired teacher and administrator it was evident to me that the teachers needed more information for their classroom lessons and more materials to help deliver those lessons.

During the fall of 2003 a grant was put together and received from Humanities Iowa for a teacher's workshop. Through the collaboration of the NPS, Humanities Iowa, Pikes Peak State Park, of the Iowa State Park System, Wyalusing State Park, of the Wisconsin State Park System, The Villa Louis, of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and Eastern National’s donation account at Effigy Mounds National Monument this 2004 one day workshop became a reality. For this first workshop we limited the participants to just 30 teachers (and their spouses if they wished to come along). In a matter of 10 days there was a waiting list.

In 2005 we expanded the workshop to 3 days, an entire weekend. Through another Humanities Iowa grant and with our great collaboration partners in Iowa and Wisconsin we were able to fund the entire weekend from the time the teachers (and some spouses) arrived until they left. This time, too, we had a waiting list even though we took double the number of participants from the first workshop.

(photo) Pete Fee in ceremonial dress, speaking to workshop participants at Hugh Harper indoor group camp.

Teachers learning from Pete Fee, Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska.
(Ken Block)

Workshop participants arrived Friday evening at the Wyalusing State Park’s Hugh Harper indoor group camp, which was used as home base. The evening’s activities included a fish fry of fresh Mississippi River catfish, followed by a presentation of Native American stories and dances by Mr. Pete Fee, from the Iowa Tribe, and his family.

Over the course of the weekend, the group learned tales of the past through visits to the monument's prairie, the Marching Bear Effigy Mound group and the fantastic 106 burial and ceremonial mounds at Sny Magill. A visit to the prairie offered the group a glimpse into what the area looked like between 200 and 2,000 years ago with the tallgrass and oak savannahs that dominated the early landscape and what role this environment played with the area’s early inhabitants. Part of the group reflected on the immensity of the Marching Bear Mound Group, one of the best preserved groups of effigy mounds left in the region, and contemplated its purpose. The Sny Magill Mound group also revealed its mysteries to the participants. This seldom visited and remote mound group is the largest concentration of mounds located on a floodplain along the edge of the Mississippi River.

(photo) Merle Frommelt and teachers at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Merle Frommelt talking to teachers at Effigy Mounds National Monument.
(Ken Block)

The group gathered for lunch and listened to tales about the explorations of Marquette and Joliet and early explorers of the Mississippi River. The sun came out just in time for a backwater canoeing adventure, which was a great late afternoon activity after a day of hiking and exploring. On the last day of the workshop, participants hiked the Sentinel Ridge Mound group at Wyalusing State Park for a discussion on regional mound groupings. Optional tours were taken to the Villa Louis and other historic sites in the area.

In addition to the background material, there were talks by archaeologists such as the Wisconsin Western Regional State Archeologist Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt, stories and dance demonstrations by Native Americans, and extensive tours of the monument. The landscape these prehistoric peoples inhabited some 2000 to 2500 years ago, the river they used for resources and travel, the plants, the animals and all resources were all tied together, interpreted and made accessible to the workshop participants.

The thing that stood out and made a lasting impression was hands-on involvement. Participants had access to everyone involved with the entire program; they were given books, VCR tapes, DVDs, CDs, posters for their classroom as well as a two hour in-school ranger program on this Native American culture. With the ranger in the classroom it was all hands-on for their students with demonstrations, artifacts and stories of the past. Everyone had hands-on experience from handling artifacts (non-accessioned or from a personal collection) to an in depth interpretation / study of the monument’s pre European burial and ceremonial mounds.

Teachers returned home with many memories and resources for the classroom. From the first two workshops it became very evident that those teachers who attended also came back to the monument for a class tour. Because their students had a much greater knowledge base about the monument, we as educators could go well beyond what was typically presented on-site to such school groups.

These workshops have already made a difference in the classroom for students. They’ve also made a difference for the teachers. During the workshop, there were no “how much longer before we are done?” comments, only “where did the time go?”

By Merle Frommelt, Seasonal Park Ranger, Interpretation, Effigy Mounds National Monument.