Group looks to build memorial honoring Native American burial grounds on UWSP campus

Published: Sep. 25, 2020 at 8:21 PM CDT
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STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAW) - When Dr. Ray Reser first learned about the possibility that a portion of the UW-Stevens Point Campus was built over a Native American burial site he was wrapping up a successful career. Now, a professor emeritus of archaeology at UWSP, Dr. Reser finds himself continuing to work studying the now confirmed burial site and working with a group of community members, students, and other faculty to honor those who were buried beneath university grounds some 150 years ago.

“Scarlet Fever had broke out in the non-native population in Stevens Point,” Dr. Reser explained. “That was transferred to this camp, and at the time there were really large, mixed tribal groups that were transient and completely displaced in the state.”

After the epidemic, those Native American groups buried their dead, what experts estimate to be between 50 and 80 bodies, on land that now is a part of the UWSP campus before moving north to Mosinee and then to the Wausau area before dispersing further north.

“I was sent a newspaper article by a colleague who was working in Minnesota at the time,” Reser said, explaining what lead to his work on the project. “It was a newspaper article that had been published in the Stevens Point Journal back in 1932 that talked about street crews working on Reserve Street, coming north through campus and hitting Native American burials, burials covered with historic trash.”

Dr. Reser said those findings lead to further research that he conducted with the help of the university’s archive department.

“We started going through all of the newspaper accounts that we could find that would give us an insight into those burials,” Reser said. “I then reached out to a number of people in the Native community, from various tribes, to try and get a little bit of back story and see if there was any memory of this or oral history, and in fact there was.”

Now, Dr. Reser finds himself on the newly named ‘Ancestor’s Beneath Our Feet’ committee, working to educate students at UWSP and members of the community about the history on the campus.

“We have this site on state land with a UW-system campus,” Dr. Reser added. “This actually gives us the opportunity to deal with this correctly.”

That includes adding the history to coursework on campus, something Sarah Scripps, director of the university’s Museum of Natural History, says is already in the works.

“We are in the beginning stages of planning out a curriculum development,” Scripps said, adding that they also hope to map the project onto various courses that “align well with the goals of the project.”

Along with education, the group hopes to honor those that call the campus their final resting place with a memorial.

“A public, prominent, significant marker needs to be installed,” said Karen Ann Hoffman, a member of the Oneida Nation and a member of the committee. “I believe this marker will allow us all to consider how we all treat one another in difficult times, and to learn these lessons from our pain-points in history so that as a community we can move forward and walk through this world in a better way, together.”

Hoffman says fundraising is currently underway for the sculpture the group hopes will be complete within the next 18 to 24 months. The university has expressed interest to the group to have a temporary, preview spot set aside on campus before the snow falls to inform members of the campus and community what is on the way.

The efforts of the group have been a positive light for Iris Carufel, a UWSP alum and current Native American Center Coordinator at UWSP.

“It’s easy to invisibilize them and to forget them in the past,” Carufel, a member of the Native American community explained. “Acknowledging that and working with Natives and non-Natives throughout this opportunity has been pretty incredible. Building bridges with all of the Stevens Point community as well as the greater community of Wisconsin.”

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