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Father and son preserve the legacy of Wisconsin’s effigy mounds

Ho-Chunk elder Ritchie Brown and his son Casey have been traveling around the state for decades to survey the mounds, which are unique to this area of the country

A group of surveyors marks the outline of an effigy mound in the shape of a ghost eagle in Muscoda, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Casey Brown

When Ho-Chunk elder Ritchie Brown started traveling around Wisconsin to see effigy mounds decades ago, he couldn’t have been in a better place.

“Wisconsin is unique in that we’re about the only place in the country that has effigy mounds,” Brown said in a recent interview on WPR’s “Wisconsin Today.”

Effigy mounds are constructions of raised earth built by Indigenous peoples of the region likely between A.D. 750 and 1200. While some of these mounds are burial sites, others serve ceremonial purposes.

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Mounds can have linear or organic shapes, but what makes effigy mounds unique is that they often take the form of different animals or spiritual entities. 

“I’ve seen fox mounds, otter mounds, eagle mounds, bear mounds,” Brown said. “You name it, they’re out there.”

Brown took an interest in the mounds in the late 1980s after visiting the farm of the late Frank Shadewald in Muscoda. Shadewald had asked for help identifying unique shapes of raised earth he’d found on his property, and Brown came to investigate as a manager at the Ho-Chunk Department of Natural Resources.

“When I first started surveying these and looking at all these mounds, I was really interested and fascinated,” Brown said. “But I didn’t know half the story then.”

Since then, Brown has spent decades traveling all over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and even Canada to identify, survey and mark the mounds, which hold special significance to the Ho-Chunk Nation and other tribes.

An older man in a baseball cap and sunglasses stands alongside a younger man in a cowboy hat in front of a river
Ritchie and Casey Brown at Wisconsin Riverside Restaurant in Spring Green for the Ho-Chunk Nation Panfish Tournament, May 2023. Photo courtesy of Casey Brown

And as often as he could, he took his son, Casey, along for the ride.

“I’ve been following (my dad) around since I was a little kid,” Casey said. “Other kids used to say, ‘Yeah, I played baseball with my dad or built things,’ but what we were doing was very different.”

Casey admits he didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the mounds when he was younger.

“I knew that it was important and that we were tromping around the woods for some reason,” he said. “As I’ve grown older, the mounds mean different things to me.”

After clinching a Midwest Regional Emmy last year, Casey is now working on a documentary film about the mounds and his father’s work. 

Rather than focusing on the archaeology of the mounds, he wants to bring an Indigenous perspective to the project. For Casey, that means moving through the seasons because of how the visual experience and cultural meaning of the mounds changes throughout the year.

“A lot of these sites are aligned with different times,” the elder Brown explained. “And the interesting part about that is the stories that go with them.”

The father-son duo indeed have many stories to share, from traveling to the mounds with Ho-Chunk traditional court leaders on a casino bus to being at a mound site during a particularly spectacular sunset.

“The majesty of the mounds is hard to transfer just by a picture or even a film or video,” Casey said.

Despite that, he hopes the documentary will bring some of the experience to viewers and educate people about what went into creating these earthworks, as he calls them.

Ritchie and Casey’s latest work has taken them back to Muscoda, where they recently marked two mounds, including a rare and culturally significant ghost eagle that spans around 700 feet.

Aerial image of an effigy mound outlined in chalk in the shape of an eagle with a wide wingspan
Drone photo of ghost eagle mound in Muscoda, Wisconsin, November 2023. Photo by Austin Williamson

This moment has been a long time in the making.

“(My dad) has been waiting decades to mark these mounds,” Casey wrote in a Facebook post. 

It can take a long time to do this survey work because the mounds are often found on the private property of non-Native farmers and landowners. Some of these landowners are very willing to work with the Browns and their team, but in other cases, it can be challenging to get direct access to the mounds for marking them or even filming them.

Casey says the work is about building relationships. Some of the farming families have been there for generations.

“They have their own stories now,” he said. “And those are just as important.”

For both Casey and his father, they see themselves as caretakers of the mounds, to preserve their history and legacy for current and future generations.

“We’re Bear Clan, so we take care of the Earth,” Casey explained.

“I want to be able to share this stuff with the younger generation,” the elder Brown said. “They need something to hang on to just to guide them through everything that’s going on today.”