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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

Back to the land

With the help of an elderly widow, a group of Native Americans plans to reconstruct a 16th-century Indian village east of Carlinville

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Midwest SOARRING Foundation’s Janet Sevilla, Ivan Dozier, and Joseph Standing Bear Schranz, with Mary Wilhelm and her grandson, Sean

When Joseph Standing Bear Schranz discovered an arrowhead last October lying on a forest floor near Carlinville, he knew an eight-year-old dream was about to come true. How the White Earth Ojibwa ended up in this patch of prairie woodland is not only a remarkable story of his own determination--it's a testament to a singular woman who desired a special legacy.

In 1993, while performing a routine archeological survey on the site of a proposed golf course, the New Lenox Park District uncovered three human remains--two women and one child, who were determined to be 400 years old--along with various artifacts dating from perhaps 10,000 years ago. The survey was mandatory under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, but the discovery of this pre-Columbian settlement didn't stop the park board from pressing ahead with its original plans.

That's when Joseph Standing Bear and a small group of followers began holding vigils at the site. "We've had numerous medicine people out there, and everyone recognizes the spiritual nature," he said at the time.

In reverence to their ancestors, Native Americans have long fought for the preservation of their burial sites and the return of human remains that have been removed from graves. There are still many Indian remains in public institutions--some are centuries old, while a great many are from the mid-1800s, when the U. S. Army actively sought them out for study (especially Indian craniums). "There are boxes, bags, and bundles in which some are kept," says Joseph Standing Bear. "The remains of our people are not specimens, oddities, or curiosities, but the ancestors of living people today."

Over the next two years Joseph Standing Bear's group logged 7,000 hours at the site. These vigils led to the formation of a not-for-profit, SOARRING, an acronym for "Save Our Ancestors' Remains and Resources Indigenous Network Group." The members proposed that 20 of the golf course's 230 acres be developed into a sacred place for worship, a museum, and a reconstructed village, where visitors could learn about America's first inhabitants.

While the group didn't get this wish, its vigils had raised public sympathy, and the three remains discovered at the golf course were transported to Miami, Oklahoma, where they were interred on the property of the Peoria tribe as the legal descendants of the Illiniwek, who most likely inhabited the New Lenox site centuries ago. The park district also agreed to erect a small stone monument with a plaque at the new golf course.

Now known as the Midwest SOARRING Foundation, the group decided to become a "facilitator to tribes regarding repatriation concerns," according to its mission statement. But the ultimate goal remained the construction of a "working village where members, as well as family, friends, and visitors, can enjoy a sampling of our rich heritage." The group modeled its plans after a re-created Ojibwa village at Lac du Flambeau in northern Wisconsin called "Waswagoning."

In 1998 the Department of Defense stopped using the Joliet Arsenal and deeded more than 15,000 acres to the National Forrest Service, which intended to return the land to natural tall-grass prairie. SOARRING proposed that an Indian education and living center be developed at the arsenal; it would include examples of various dwellings and host seasonal activities by a range of Native Peoples of the Woodlands, including the Ojibwa, Illiniwek, Miami, Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Mascouten, Shawnee, Delaware, Winnebago, and Menomonee.

Though this proposal didn't meet with resistance, it was as doomed as the New Lenox project. The former industrial site required years of expensive clean-up before it could be used by the public. SOARRING began to seek other places for its project.

At about the same time, Mary Wilhelm, a widow living on a farm about five miles east of Carlinville, was in the processing of determining her estate. Her farm included many acres of non-tillable land that had once been a gravel excavation pit. The stone was mixed into concrete laid down on Interstate 55, a few miles to the east. This part of her property also bordered timberland.

Though "reclaimed" as part of the agreement between the Wilhelm family and the gravel excavators, the land had been topographically changed. Creeks were diverted, and hills, valleys, and ponds were now present where they had not existed before. The topsoil had been replaced, but the surface was severely rutted and uneven. Some wildlife returned; beavers had even dammed a creek.

In 2000 Wilhelm considered granting this land to the government for a nature preserve. She called the U.S. Department of Agriculture's McCoupin County office, hoping to qualify for a program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. But she discovered her land didn't meet the requirements--the program was designed to serve landowners whose farms were currently in agricultural production. Yet in the process she'd met Ivan Dozier, the American Indian Liaison for the Illinois office of the NRCS. Dozier, a member of the Southern Cherokee Nation, is also the vice president of SOARRING. When he told Wilhelm of the group's desire to establish a living model of Indian life before the Europeans, the seed was planted. After searching her soul and offering prayers for guidance, Wilhelm came to the realization that some of her land "should be given back to the Indians," and she formerly deeded more than 35 acres for SOARRING's project. The group will also lease her adjacent parcel of timberland.

The development of the Indian center and reconstructed village will be overseen by a board, consisting of SOARRING members, Mary's family, and community residents. This board will also be responsible for the administration of the site. The land has already been surveyed, and preliminary meetings have been held with the Army Corps of Engineers to investigate whether funding can be obtained to dredge the beaver pond and to make other watershed improvements.

The reclaimed land features a hill that's in the natural form of an earthen mound. The visitors' center will be built at the top of the mound in the style of a typical woodlands elder's lodge: a lashed-log structure with a grass roof. The hill will be hemmed in by water on three sides. Downhill will be the village with its wigwams and lodges, animal pens, and grain storage structures. All shelters will utilize bent-sapling or tree-branch frames overlaid with animal skins, tree bark, or grass thatching. There will be no evidence of European influences--no iron pots, steel knives, guns, or cloth.

While this re-created village will be relatively close to the large center of Cahokia (near-present day Collinsville, about 40 miles south), the time frame reflected in this village will be at least 400 years later, in the 1600s, long after Cahokia had been abandoned in the 1200s.

Buffalo were prevalent in the woodlands at that time--the meat was a major dietary staple; the skins were a source of clothing; and the bones and horns were fashioned into tools. Deer and moose were also hunted for meat and hides, and the waterways and lakes provided fish. Many tribes cultivated corn and rice. Earthen cookware was used, as was the bow and arrow.

The natural beauty of the land will be preserved. Prairie grasses will be used to make clothing and thatch; herbs will be employed for medicinal purposes. The forests will be maintained but left in their natural state. Especially beautiful is a dense stand of sugar maples, whose yellow leaves are brilliant in the autumn. Hopefully animals will thrive too: deer, turkey, raccoon, skunk, coyote, hawks, ravens, song birds, and perhaps even eagles.

"The world is being plundered and disrespected daily," says Joseph Standing Bear. "We must realize that each one of us is part of the creation and the creator. The meaning of life is evolutionary--we must concentrate on this particular link that is now as we form the chain of life to be as stable as possible.

"Anyone can kill, " he says. "Only a few can heal."

Next weekend, June 28, a fund-raiser will be held for the Carlinville village project. Midwest SOARRING members will present Native American dancing, music, crafts, and food from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Terry Park in Palmyra. For directions and other information, call SOARRING at 773-585-1744. The group's Web site is www.soarring.org. Its address is 3013 South Wolf Road, #192, Westchester, Illinois 60154.