LCO archeological dig creates youth interestLCO archeological dig creates youth interest
Friday, July 24 2009
Written by Mark St. Germaine,
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Recent Ojibwe high school graduates carried shovels full of dirt from huge piles of excavated soil and poured them into screened boxes, then sifted the dirt onto the ground, revealing tiny objects left on top the screen.

The young workers became excited as they gathered together and examined the little pieces of rusted metal, glass, rock, or bone fragment. They brought the peices over to their foreman, Bob Sander, if they looked to be of particular interest. Sander checked them over with great detail and placed them in a plastic baggie.

One object was an etched deer knuckle bone that had been used in earlier centuries as a game of skill. The Ojibwe once referred to this game as Pepengunegun, a cup and needle game that required players to skillfully thread a bone needle through the thimble-like knuckle bone.

“Our history is important. We have to uncover more of this before our history, or even this game, becomes lost,” stated Sander, to emphasize the value of the excavation project. 

The workers were hired by the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe as a part of a project to investigate about fifty tons of excavated soil that had been dug up by heavy machinery for a water line project in the main village of Reserve. 

“It was May 1st, I believe,” stated Brian Bisonette, tribal council leader, “when Jerry notified me about the uncovering of bones.” 

Jerry Smith serves as the tribal historic preservation officer for Lac Courte Oreilles. On May 1st, he watched the machinery dig the trench for the new water line in Reserve.  After about thirty feet of work, the John Deere excavator scooped up fragments of large bones and dumped them on the ground. Smith spotted them and immediately reported the findings to Bisonette. The water line project was stopped. 
Tribal police were called in to investigate the bones to determine whether they were human, recent, and if foul play was involved. Once the Tribal police gave clearance, tribal officials conducted a Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) search of the material unearthed.

“There’s shallow graves all over the reservation,” said Bisonette, as he explained the historic conditions that led to emergency burials of tribal people through the years. He described the early Twentieth Century flu epidemic that killed dozens of Ojibwe and left most villages without men to dig deep graves. 
The Tribal Council stopped the water line project and hired youth workers to dig and sift through the excavated soil to ensure that it will not disturb human remains at this site. NAGPRA is a federal law, passed in 1990, that requires companies doing excavation work to follow a procedure for the treatment of unearthed human remains or objects of cultural value. 

“We don’t have a tribal ordinance yet for a protocol with excavated remains,” said Bisonette, “even though we’ve been working on one for some years and I believe it will soon be adopted.” 
Bisonette said that tribal policy over this matter follows “custom law,” a procedure that requires spiritual leaders to rebury the remains or funeral artifacts uncovered by accident. 

Rebecca Nickence ( a local teen) volunteered as an archeology assistant on the project. “I was working at the Reserve Elderly Center as a volunteer, so I volunteered to work out here,” she said, as she pointed her hand toward the sifting area. “I’m learning a lot about our tribal history from Jerry and Bob,” she said. Nickence says the dig site has revealed more about Lac Courte Oreilles history.

Another teen, Thomas Smith, Jr. (a relative of Jerry Smith) follows the history lessons that are being provided on site by the elder tribal historic preservation officer. “I like working outside and learning new things about our history,” said Smith, Jr., “and I’m very anxious with archeology.” 

Both teens said they would like to go to school to study archeology. They explain the connection between the layers of earth that were uncovered, to the eras of tribal history that have been taught by Jerry Smith. 
“I hold my breath every time I see a water line project going on at Reserve,” said Bisonette, “it is our responsibility to preserve and protect our history and our forefathers.” 

Mark St. Germaine, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, will be a sophomore in high school at Eau Claire Memorial.  He can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

(cutline for story photo: Teen archeology assistants have acquired career interests in archeology and tribal history from the discoveries they’ve made. L-R: Rebecca Nickence, Thomas Smith, Jr., and Cynthia Potack. (Photo by Mark St. Germaine.))

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