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Dakota Bear Circle
By Leif Enger
December 7, 1998
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Archeologists have unearthed what is thought to be a 1000-year-old sacred site on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation. The site contains dozens of ancient bear skulls and predates the arrival of Ojibway Indians to the region.

THE LOCATION IS STILL being kept under wraps - visitors are practically sworn to secrecy - but the site making the archeologists swoon is a plot of sandy ground within sight of Lake Mille Lacs; the sun on this day flooding in through a thin cover of trees. The dig itself looks unimpressive at first: just a few meters across, and inches - not feet - in depth. Tim Tumberg is on knees and elbows at the edge of the action.

Tumberg: I've never seen anything even close to this exciting on a site. It's just amazing. Here's a couple bear canines.
Tumberg, a ten-year veteran of such digs, is spooning dirt from the hole. With a small paintbrush, he scrubs the surfaces of several long, unmistakable curved teeth. The teeth are deep brown, like the earth that holds them. Once you realize what you're looking at, you start seeing them all over the place. David Mather is lead archeologist on the project.
Mather: We realized at some point we had more than four canines. And a bear only has four. So we knew we had more than one bear. And we hadn't found any bones other than the skull. Not even vertebrae! So we knew we were onto something special.
Something, Mather figured, like a site excavated in the early 1970s at nearby Lake Onamia. That dig, at what's now known as the Crace site, revealed more than 30 shattered and jumbled bear skulls at the edge of a burial mound. But as members of Mather's crew widened the dig, they found not crushed remains, but one of the clearest prehistoric ritual sites uncovered to date.
Mather: Let's go over here and let me get something to point with. These are teeth, and here are the fangs, and then here, here, maybe here, here, here, here, and here are bear skulls, that are lined up, and they are all looking into the feature, into the pit when the pit was dug out. They were lined up right there along the edge.
You can't see the skulls in their entirety. The workers have cleared off only the top few inches, so what is visible are the sharply ridged crowns all pointing inward. There's something in the sight that makes a visitor glad for daylight.

As for the pit - what it was for - what might've been in it, Mather won't venture to guess. Neither will Dr. Guy Gibbon, the University of Minnesota archeology professor who excavated the Crace site back in the '70s. Gibbon says though such well-preserved sites are rare; caches of bear skulls have been found from Scandinavia to Siberia and across North America.

Gibbon: Animals were intermediaries, used by these groups of people to communicate with past ancestors and spirits, etc. What the ceremony was like, and what it's purpose was for, unfortunately, we don't know.
Gibbon believes this site, estimated to be 1,000 years old, was the work of people who eventually became the Dakota. In the 1700s, the Dakota were chased out of the region by the Ojibwa, but that antagonistic history didn't keep the Mille Lacs Ojibwa from contacting the Dakota immediately when the site was discovered. Mille Lacs cultural specialist Elisse Aune says, in fact, the Dakota will have the last word about what happens next at the site: whether there's any more digging, for example, or whether it's simply re-covered, and allowed to rest.
Aune: There's a lot of questions to be answered about this site, and of course the Mille Lacs Band is working with the Dakota people, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the Historic Preservation office, and the historical society. Working together to gain knowledge of one specific site is a large achievement in itself.
Archeologist David Mather says while he'd like to know more about the site, actually removing pieces would be difficult to do without destroying them. He says archeology often overlaps into other realms. When that happens, it's best to go slowly if you go at all.
Mather: This ... you know, if I never find anything again, that's OK. It means more than I can say to be able to be here and see it and be able to learn something from it. But it's not the remains of somebody's meal. It's a glimpse into somebody's life that's bigger than that. And it's our responsibility to be respectful of it.
Dakota tribal leaders are still consulting on just how to treat the discovery. A decision is expected before the end of the year.