Human remains excavated from tribal burial site on Bayshore Drive

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Human remains, artifacts and an apparent Native American grave were uncovered in June on Bayshore Drive as contractors worked to rebuild the roadway there.

The neighborhood is now the site of houses worth half a million dollars overlooking the confluence of the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. But the site had been the home of indigenous people going back more than 13,000 years, said Jeffery A. Behm, a professor of anthropology at UW Oshkosh.

The tribes that lived at that location at one point or another may have included the Ho-Chunk, the Menominee, the Meskwaki and the Oneota, he said. The first three of these are still in existence, while the Oneota is thought to be predecessor culture of one or more tribes, although no direct connection has been documented.

“It was probably not a single village, but a series of villages that were built and abandoned when resources were depleted,” Behm said. A key resource would have been firewood, and nearby stands of trees would have been the first to go.

“At some point it becomes easier to move the houses than to haul wood from a long distance,” Behm explained. Once the trees grew back, the site would have again become an advantageous site for a village and would have been repopulated.

To archeologists, at least, the Bayshore Drive area is well-known as the location of Indian villages that have yielded large numbers of artifacts. Arthur Kannenberg, an amateur archeologist who was one of the founders of the Oshkosh Public Museum, spent several years at the site starting in 1929 and completed extensive excavations.

“He found lots of Oneota material and some historic European trade goods,” including some that will soon be displayed in a major new exhibit at the museum, “People of the Waters,” Behm said.

Kannenberg also found, and removed, the remains of at least two individuals from the Bayshore neighborhood.

These bones were in the possession of the Milwaukee Public Museum until about a decade ago, when the U.S. Department of the Interior said they should be repatriated to the Ho-Chunk people, which consists of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

Because the city was working in a known archeological site, it contracted with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee to monitor the project. Workers found “pottery and cookware in addition to some human remains,” City Manager Mark Rohloff said. Last month the city agreed to amend the UWM contract by up to $40,000 for “ additional monitoring, analysis, excavation and management of the remains.”

An “isolated finger bone,” a thigh bone that was found “not in a typical burial context” and an “intentional human burial” were the remains discovered on the project, said Chip Brown, senior compliance officer for the Wisconsin Historical Society. The WHS maintains a database of known burial sites and has legal control over activity that might disturb human remains.

“All of the human remains were excavated,” he said.

From the tribal perspective, the preference is that grave sites not be disturbed. “The way the nation looks at this, we seek to avoid the inadvertent discovery or disturbance” of human remains, said Bill Quackenbush, the tribal preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. “If there is an inadvertent disturbance, we would like them to be replaced where they were.”

In a case like this, where remains were removed, they will be analyzed to see if they can be linked to a particular tribe and then repatriated accordingly.

“If they can’t determine what tribe, the Wisconsin Intertribal Repatriation Committee will be involved and will determine the disposition,” said David Grignon, director of the Menominee Historic Preservation Department.

“Nobody is happy about these things,” said Brown. While the property owner has the right to refuse to have remains removed, such a decision can be problematic because the location would then be recorded in a database. Any future construction work that might disturb the remains would require a permit from the historical society, which may or may not be forthcoming.

Brown said it would not make sense to leave Indian remains in a roadway because there will almost certainly be future repair work that would require a permit to disturb the remains. “We do not often grant permits to excavate remains,” he said.

Photo: Warning signs restrict access to Bayshore Drive while it undergoes reconstruction. Copyright 2017 Miles Maguire.

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Miles Maguire

Miles Maguire is the author of Advanced Reporting: Essential Skills for 21st Century Journalism. He was the founding editor of the Oshkosh Community News Network, a nonprofit online news organization whose work was cited as a notable innovation in journalism in the 2005 Knight-Batten Awards. Send questions, comments and suggestions to miles.maguire@yahoo.com.

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