GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids Public Museum has announced a free presentation to tell the history and provide a tribal perspective on the Grand River Burial Mounds.

The program, called “GR Stories: The Grand River Burial Mounds, The Place Where Our Ancestors Rest” will take place at 4 p.m. March 25 in the museum’s Meijer Theater. Ron Yob, tribal chairman of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, will take part along with researcher Dr. Andrea Riley-Mukavetz and GRPM Anishinaabe Curator Jannan Cotto.

Cotto says the Grand River mounds are a unique Grand Rapids treasure and a special place for the Indigenous community.

“I think what they’ll take away from the program, or at least what we are hoping is a deeper understanding about our relationships to the burial mounds throughout time and have a deeper understanding of what that means to us through an Indigenous lens,” Cotto told News 8. “…We have an awareness that these were built by people that were here before us and they buried their dead. There’s cultural significance, there’s spiritual significance. It goes a little bit deeper than the way most people think about it.”

The Grand River Burial Mounds are often referred to as the Norton Mounds — named after the man who owned the property when the mounds were first excavated in the 1870s. The property now belongs to the city of Grand Rapids and the museum serves as the property’s steward and caretaker.

As caretakers of the Grand River Burial Mounds property, the Grand Rapids Public Museum has worked to stabilize part of the riverbank along the Grand River to protect the mounds from erosion. (Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Museum)

The land is closed to the public to preserve the mounds and protect that history, though the museum works with local tribes to allow their citizens to visit. Fences were installed several years ago to quell illegal dumping. The museum has also led projects in recent years to help restore the site, removing an oil well and stabilizing the riverbank.

The Grand River Burial Mounds were built by people called the Hopewell Indians. That is a catch-all term that refers to the Native Americans who lived between 450 B.C. and 450 A.D. Like Norton, the name Hopewell comes from a land owner; a group of mounds in Ross County, Ohio, that was excavated in the 1890s.

Cotto says there have been some discussions to try and get the name of the Norton Mounds formally changed.

“We’ve already been doing some research about how we can do that,” Cotto said. “It is listed as the Norton Mounds on all of the historical registers. So it looks like there is a process in place but it looks like it might take a while. But that is one of the topics of conversation that we are going to bring to the tribes.”

A photocopy of Edmond P. Gibson’s map of the Norton Mounds Group. (Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Museum)

Digs at the Grand River Burial Mounds turned up many items, including pottery, utensils, “mortuary offerings” and engraved turtle carapaces. A survey conducted by former Grand Valley State University curator Dr. Jan Brashler also showed items were brought back to the mounds in the centuries after they were built to honor the dead.

Excavations are no longer allowed thanks to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law was passed in 1990, making it illegal to dig, desecrate or take any Native American remains or objects from federal or tribal lands.

The land still holds 16 mounds, making it one of the best-preserved sites of its era, though only 11 still have their original form because of past digs. Researchers believe there was more than 30 mounds at one time, but several were destroyed as the city expanded.

The March 25 event is free but tickets are required. You can claim them on the museum’s website or in person at the museum’s reception desk the day of the event.

The program is part of an initiative called the “Telling the Full History Preservation Fund,” launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.