By Marjorie Steele
Two hundred years ago, when the spring floods would recede from the banks of the Grand River, where present-day Grand Rapids goes about its daily urban bustle, the first objects to re-emerge from the waters were the rounded peaks of three dozen unnatural mounds. Ranging in size from minor knolls to sculpted three-story summits, these minor megaliths performed this dance for unknown thousands of years: rising from the dangerous rushing waters silently, and in unison, as a sign to the people living there that the chaotic destruction of winter and spring was giving way to creation once again.
Did these mounds reflect the patterns of star constellations their ancient builders revered, telling the story of cosmic origins and lingering connection? Were they placed to replicate the global map of a civilization that was wiped away in a past too distant for modern memory to fathom? Were they simply burial mounds made by native tribes to honor the dead, built higher over centuries with layers of dead kings and queens?
Or perhaps all of the above?
Today, less than a dozen mounds remain, clothed in hardwoods, tucked just out of sight of downtown Grand Rapids’s southernmost Pearl Street Bridge. These are known as the “Norton Mounds,” after the Captain Norton who owned the land upon which they rest until the late 1800s. The damming of the Grand River during Grand Rapids’s industrialization has long since ceased the mounds’ annual creation dance with the river’s floodplain, and they stand dry and sequestered, like guardians, on the southern border of the city which is largely unaware of their existence.
Before the Midwest was colonized, these mounds were not unique to Grand Rapids—or even to the Midwest. The large mounds along the Grand River belonged to a pattern of an untold number of mounds which used to proliferate the state’s landscape. Through both indifference and curiosity, however, the last 150 years have seen all but a fraction of these mounds razed, leaving little or no evidence behind. The mounds were points of great interest to gentlemen explorers, who took up the hobby of “excavating” these sacred sites with tenacity throughout the 1800s. When the treasure-hunting waned, farmers leveled mounds to make way for fields, and real estate magnates demolished them to make way for grocery stores.
Four major excavations have been performed on the Norton Mounds alone, with nearly fifty mounds in the modern-day Grand Rapids area surveyed, excavated, or both in the late 1800s. Western science has taken artifacts and remains from the mounds at will, but has yet to produce conclusive answers to the questions of who built these mounds, and for what purpose.
Common wisdom among the scientific community dates the “Hopewellian” culture to which the mounds are attributed from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 500 and dates the Norton Mounds to be at least 2,000 years old, but the evidence upon which these dates are based is arguably indeterminate. Some human remains within the mounds can be loosely dated, but dating the construction of the structures themselves—or understanding the method of construction—is another story. The artifacts, which give evidence of technology and civilization that are far more advanced than recorded history can account for, only raise more questions.
Stone pipes carved into animal likenesses in exquisite detail proliferate the mounds. Threaded stone tools, unlike any artifacts found in known Native American cultures—or any other ancient culture, for that matter—are scattered within the mounds like fragmented clues.
But the real twist, as always, comes down to blood.
Local scientific lore rumors that the DNA samples taken from human remains found within Grand Rapids’s Hopewellian mounds have produced no linear connection with any Native American tribe known in Michigan.
Yet there is one thread that binds the builders of the mounds to local native tribes—a thread which is, in a way, stronger than blood: the oral histories of local Potawatomi-Ottowa tribes reference the builders of the mounds as their ancestors. Over the years, these frayed threads of oral history have mixed with rumors, hoaxes, and inconclusive data to weave some tantalizing tales. Foreign tribes usurping a native culture; newcomers driving “giants” from the land; divine floods that cleansed the lands from an ancient race of people—fables like these hover around Hopewellian mythology like moths around a porch light.
Mystique and rumors aside, the story of what’s happened to the mounds over the last 150 years is very real. While the vast majority near Grand Rapids have been destroyed—with modern monuments like Millennium Park and Ah-Nab-Awen Park (named and designed in homage to the Converse Mounds which used to stand there) taking their place, the Norton Mounds still stand, touched by research but not destroyed, largely unknown to the local public.
If these mounds stand as guarding monuments to the area, they themselves have seen their share of guardians over the years, protecting them from the fate of their many sisters—and protecting the secrets they contain for future generations.
In the early sixties, as development contracts for downtown Grand Rapids’s highway construction were solidifying, the remaining Norton Mounds were a hair’s breadth away from being dozed beneath the path of the new 196 freeway. Local tribes joined forces with the University of Michigan’s researchers to protect the site, and managed to shift the path of construction to leave the mounds untouched. The sixties also saw the University of Michigan’s formal excavation of the Norton Mounds—the last excavation to be performed on the mounds, during which a large sampling of human remains were taken.
Yet for all the scientific study that had been done, the mounds were megaliths without a people, until the work of Debra Muller in the early 2000s. In her adulthood, Debra dug deeply into her Potawatomi-Ottowa ancestry—an ancestry which had almost been lost to her, having been adopted by a white family at birth. She was a prominent member of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Nation, a chairwoman and commissioner with the City of Grand Rapids, founder of the Theatre of the Three Fires; the list goes on. Debra was a crusader for preserving Native American traditions for future generations—including the wealth of knowledge and story which tread much further, and deeper, into history than western scientific explanation can muster.
She directed the Norton Mounds project for the Grand Rapids Public Museum, the predecessor of the Kent Scientific Institute, which had funded Coffinbury’s invasive excavation in the late 1800s. But the nature of Debra’s work with the museum was fundamentally different: it was of creation, rather than destruction.
Working with both academic and native communities, Debra collected a comprehensive narrative of the mounds’ known past, excavations, cultural origins, and, importantly, a vision for their future in the community. In 2003, Debra authored a comprehensive book, The Norton Mounds Site: A Description and History of a Prominent Cultural National Historic Landmark, followed in 2007 by a companion piece, which maps out a plan for landscape management of the site.
In 2010, the Public Museum voluntarily returned a host of artifacts—including human remains—taken from the mounds back to local native tribes. Unlike before, the twist here came down to story.
It wasn’t DNA samples or carbon dating which allowed the museum to take action under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and return ancestral remains to local tribes: it was the thread of oral history. The thread which Debra had found and restored with a dedication that ran deeper than blood.
Cancer took Debra’s life less than one year later, her guardianship having made an indelible, if silent, mark on Grand Rapids’s landscape.
Who will step next into the role of guardian of the traditions and secrets these mounds represent remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the future of the Norton Mounds will require more skill with story than with a spade.
Cover image: Norton Mound Group Mound H, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Public domain photo by Robert Smith.
This story is excerpted from Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology, edited by Ashley Nickels and Dani Villela and published by Belt Publishing. It appears in that anthology under the title “Where Story is Thicker than Blood.”
Marjorie Steele is a poet, writer, and citizen journalist and has been a resident of Grand Rapids for nearly ten years. A boomerang West Michigander, Marjorie currently teaches business at Kendall College of Art and Design of FSU. Her writing can be found on Medium’s subscription platform, TheRapidian.org, in Dyer-Ives’s 2017 “Voices,” and in various local publications.