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Effigy Mounds Quarter – The Story of Destruction, Preservation and Crime


2017-S 25 Cents Effigy Mounds National Park Silver PCGS PR70DCAM. Click image to enlarge.

“Look at this ugly design” a friend said handing me the newly released Effigy Mounds National Park quarter… This became my first impression of the coin. In 1999, the United States begun the unprecedented task of honoring each state in the union with a commemorative quarter issued at a rate of five different designs a year for the next 10 years. With the program’s success, the five United States territories and District of Columbia were added in 2009.

In 2010, a spinoff of the 50 State Quarters materialized as the America The Beautiful Quarters program, with the United States Mint making quarters that feature the National Parks of the United States. The program entails 56 coins planned for release through 2021 honoring each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and five outlying territories. “Selected sites must be ones that can reasonably be expected to translate into dignified designs of which the citizens of the United States can be proud,” were the standards set forth by the law issuing the commemorative quarter issues. Yet, in 2017 a friend was handing me this coin and telling me how ugly it looked.

From the ground “Bear at Effigy Mounds National Monument.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Click image to enlarge.

So, What are the Effigy Mounds?

Across North America, many pre-Columbian societies had built mounds for religious, ceremonial, residential, and burial purposes. Some of these mounds were made in shapes resembling various animals such as bear, deer, bison, lynx, turtles, panthers, and birds. Some mounds even took the forms of spirts. These so-called effigy mounds found in Effigy Mounds National Monument are associated with the Woodland period of North American pre-Columbian cultures, which can range from 1000 BCE to 1000 CE. These mounds, ranging in size from small to incredibly massive, are structures that were built by hand from baskets of earth carried and added to the ground into the mound as formed. Mound building was still in practice when European explorers and settlers Hernando de Soto noted mound building peoples in the Southeastern United States between 1540-1542. French artist Jacques le Moyne noted mound building in northeastern Florida in the 1560s. These observances continued until the collapse of these Native American civilizations in the 1700s.

Destruction of the Effigy Mounds and Creation of the Monument

In Effigy Mounds National Monument there is an old military road that helps explain what happened to the individuals who were the ancestors of the people who built the effigy mounds. Between the 1830s and 1840s, the survivors of the influenzas brought by Europeans were rounded up and relocated to distant reservations to make the land available to new settlers. At the time of white settlement in the area now known as the states of Iowa and Wisconsin, there had been many tens of thousands of mounds many in the shapes of effigies. Farmers ploughed the land for agricultural development, destroying the mounds and anything else in the way. Other people curious about the mounds would often dig them up looking for treasures. It is believed over 80% of the original effigy mounds have been destroyed. What protected many of the surviving mounds was their location in areas unsuitable for agricultural development.

In 1949, President Harry Truman signed a proclamation establishing Effigy Mounds National Monument. In doing so he called it a place of great scientific interest. Effigy Mounds National Monument is found mostly in Allamakee County, Iowa, even though effigy mounds can be found elsewhere outside of the park. In 1951, the first archeological survey began digging some of the effigy mounds to and the objects found were put on public display in Effigy Mounds Museum. Careless management of the park would go on to destroy many more mounds in the building of roads, trenches, and even the digging of posts was done on the effigy mounds. A utility shed was also built over a hidden mound. This destruction continued as late as 2009, when Effigy Mounds Superintendent Phyllis Ewing oversaw some $3 million dollars in illegal construction in the park for boardwalks, trails, and other structures without following procedures outlined in the National Historic Preservation Act and other statues.

The Crime at Effigy Mounds National Monument

With the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, the then-superintendent of Effigy Mounds National Monument feared repercussions from the act. One of the actions that led to the passage of the NAGPRA was cases that occurred at Slack Farm and Dickerson Mounds. A 500-year-old burial mound in Slack Farm in Kentucky was dug up and the human remains were tossed; at the Dickerson Mounds site in Illinois, numerous skeletons were on display leading to protest. Both events led to national news.

Under NAGPRA, cultural items including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony had to be repatriated to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Native American Tribes. With the Effigy Mounds National Monument 20 tribes have association with the mounds and the museum collection of human remains and artifacts could fall under the repatriation law. Thomas Munson refused to allow the holdings of the museum to be repatriated and stole 41 skeletal remains from the museum by placing them into trash bags and removing them in boxes from the facilities. It was his belief that if there were no human remains that Native Americans would be unable to make claims for anything at the Effigy Mounds National Monument. The remains were never returned.

In 2011 new Superintendent Jim Nepstad complied with tribal demands and investigated, eventually finding the remains still stored in trash bags in Thomas Munson’s car garage. In 2016, Thomas Munson pled guilty to one count of embezzling government property. His sentence was 10 consecutive weekends in jail, one year of house arrest, 100 hours of community service, and $108,000 in restoration. The federal prosecutor of the case stated that Thomas Munson was punished as if he had stolen a Xerox machine for the case. In his public apology, Munson asked people to remember him for who he is and not for what he had done. As of 2018, the remains were set for reburial on the national monument site.

Caption: 2017-P 25 Cents Effigy Mounds National Park PCGS MS65. Click image to enlarge.

The Effigy Mounds Quarter

Sky view of the Effigy Mounds, image labeled free use by NPS.

With the America the Beautiful Quarters, the Effigy Mounds National Monument was chosen for Iowa with a release date in 2017. The quarter, designed by Richard Masters and engraved by Renata Gordon, endeavors to show the national monument in a canvas of less than 24 millimeters in diameter. In a park that has more then 200 mounds with over 30 different animal-shaped effigy mounds, the choice was to interpret the design with two of the “marching bears” and a bird-shaped mound on a field raised up with trees in the background from an aerial view.

The design was IA-09, one of 27 different proposed designs. It is difficult to show and explain what Effigy Mounds is from a single image measuring under 24 millimeters – from the building of the mounds from basket after basket of earth carried from the river up to the mound and dumped and shaped in honor of the buried persons, to the thousands of years of culture and practice, to the destruction and preservation of these mounds in modern times and the crime that continues into today. The Effigy Mounds Quarter shows the United States and rest of the world that this place is important, that the culture and people who built it are important, and that despite all of its more recent checkered history it is worth preserving and honoring for people to understand and appreciate for the future. For me at least, this is a piece of beauty and shows that we as a country need to recognize the importance of sites like these.


History America the Beautiful Quarters

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