Can Detroit Return its Brownfields to the Indigenous Sacred Sites They Once Were?

October 27, 2021

Ask a current Detroiter what stands at the junction of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers in the Delray neighborhood, and they may tell you about Zug Island: blast furnaces, mounds of coal, and gated-off trestle bridges guarded by signs warning “No Trespassing” and “Cameras Prohibited.” There is no sign at the site, however, of what Delray residents in the 19th century would have seen on the opposite riverbank: the Great Mound of the River Rouge, an enormous mound where generation after generation of Indigenous tribes in the region buried their dead.

Growing up in metro Detroit and working in schools in the city, I had never heard of Detroit’s Indigenous earthworks, once ubiquitous to the riverbanks of the city’s eponymic strait. It took a short story by English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy for me to learn the history of the burial mounds in my hometown.

Now, with U.S. Steel’s recent cessation of operations on Zug Island, what might future residents of the area describe standing at the junction of these two rivers?

A map showing the location of Detroit’s Great Mound from Henry Gillman’s 1877 The Mound-Builders and Platycnemism in Michigan.

The Great Mound of the River Rouge

In 2015, I was wrapping up a graduate degree in Scotland and preparing to move back home to Michigan. My supervisor, a Thomas Hardy specialist, got an email from James Bratcher, a Hardy enthusiast in Texas, speculating about a connection between Detroit’s Indigenous mounds and the publication of Hardy’s short story “A Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork,” in the Detroit Post in 1885. Hardy’s story describes an unethical archaeologist’s nighttime dig at an ancient earthwork near Dorchester, known as Maiden Castle, framing a transatlantic problem in English specifics: Victorian archeological practices sometimes destroyed what they should have preserved.

“Since this is more or less literally up your street, I wonder if you’d like to see if you can take it further?” my supervisor suggested, forwarding the email along to me. Back in Detroit that fall, I visited the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, which holds copies of the original Post. I found Hardy’s story and read the papers leading up to and after its publication. There were no references to Detroit’s burial mounds. The circumstances surrounding the composition of Hardy’s story and the arrangement of its publication in the Detroit Post are not exactly certain; one postcard provides a hint at its placement. Did Hardy know about Detroit’s ancient earthworks when he composed his story or when he placed it?

My sense is that Bratcher is right: whether arbitrarily or at the hand of an editor, the story of Dorset’s ancient earthwork could be transposed across the Atlantic and read as a local story, a story perhaps of the Great Mound on the Rouge River in Detroit. While critics have not always known what to make of “A Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork,” which is an outlier in Hardy’s short fiction in style and tone, I read it as a satirical commentary on the destruction wrought by archaeological digging and the economic and imperialistic values that drove it.

Having climbed the steep escarpments of the earthwork fortress Maiden Castle with friends in the summer of 2014, I found myself curious about the magnitude of the missing Detroit mounds. Information on their history is limited, the best historical depictions of them coming from Detroit naturalist Bela Hubbard’s 1887 Memorials of a Half-Century and hobbyist-archaeologist Henry Gillman’s 1873 and 1875 reports for the Smithsonian. Hubbard records that according to local inhabitants in the early 1800s, the Great Mound stood 800 feet long, 400 feet wide and 40 feet tall. By the time he was writing his memoirs in late 1800s, he was watching it shrink to half its original size, plundered by pothunters and carted away for sand.

“We must regard this great mound—now being so ruthlessly destroyed—as a vast necropolis, containing the dead of many centuries, belonging both to the prehistoric past and to our modern era,” Hubbard urged.

That winter I visited Fort Wayne, eager for the chance to scope out the last remaining mound preserved inside its walls. Fort Wayne was an army fort established in 1843 along the Detroit River where many of the mounds and an unusual earthwork once stood. It was also the site of the last peace treaty signed in Michigan between the U.S. government and Indigenous tribes. Most of the buildings—including the row of Victorian officer homes where the last remaining mound stands—are dilapidated, roofs sunken in and windows boarded up. The mound itself—excavated twice, and reformed in the 20th century to assume its original shape—is a small hill enclosed on all sides by a chain-link fence labelled “Indian Mound.” It would be easy to miss.

The rest of Detroit’s Indigenous earthworks, I learned, had been destroyed, either for sand or due to urbanization. The construction of Fort Wayne itself leveled at least two other mounds on the site, and the construction of fairgrounds for the Detroit International Exposition in 1889 marked the complete leveling of the Great Mound. Gravel from the core of the mound was used to tamp down the dusty walks of the fairgrounds.

The human remains excavated by Gillman were described in racist terms in his reports to the Smithsonian, in line with the contemporaneous racist rhetoric that deemed Indigenous peoples as less than human. Some of the skeletons were sent to museums, including the University of Michigan’s Natural History Museum and Harvard’s Peabody Museum, where they remained as recently as 2014 before being repatriated to the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians. Still more museum-held remains from the mounds have yet to be repatriated to Indigenous communities, despite the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. Many more human remains were pushed directly into the river.

The destruction of the burial mounds in Detroit paralleled the displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples in the United States. The more I read about the mounds in Detroit and across the Midwest, the more I encountered the nineteenth-century rhetoric of “civilization” used to rationalize the annexation and obliteration of Indigenous peoples and culture. As Ibram X. Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning (2016), throughout history racist ideas have been created as a way to justify economically motivated racist policies, leading “consumers of these racist ideas to believe there is something wrong with [the people they target].”

The policy of civilization depended on the idea that Indigenous peoples were “savage” races that would become extinct in the face of “progress” if not “saved” by the Euro-American introduction of agriculture and education (despite the fact many tribes had been farming for millennia). Its outward goal was assimilation; its implicit target was to take over land.

The idea that Indigenous peoples already had rich and multifarious cultures of their own—as might be indicated by the built landscapes they created—posed a problem for this rhetoric. Racist policies such as the “Civilization Regulations” sought to dismantle Indigenous cultures and to erase the sense of a North American history that predates Euro-American settlers, perpetuating instead the idea of the continent as a blank slate. The destruction of the mounds was part of the erasure of Indigenous culture, wiping any mark of it from the land.

Thanks to the work of Indigenous studies, many people today recognize the fact that the land where our present-day cities now stand was taken from Indigenous peoples, acknowledging it on websites and in email signatures. This is an important step, but the acknowledgement often exists in the disembodied space of the internet. What of the land itself? What do we see at the individual, specific, physical sites that were destroyed? In Detroit in particular—what of the desecration of so many human remains?

Zug Island and the Industrialization of Delray

During the period I was researching Hardy’s story and Detroit’s earthworks, I was teaching at a school in River Rouge. My commute along Jefferson Avenue passed through Delray and past Fort Wayne. Jefferson Avenue isn’t heavily trafficked west of downtown Detroit; most of my road companions were trailer-trucks headed for industrial sites in River Rouge. I drove through the neighborhoods that were once populated with mounds and saw flat open fields, empty lots overgrown with weeds between houses.

Across the natural junction of the River Rouge and the Detroit River from where the Great Mound once stood, I saw Zug Island. Home of the infamous steel mills partially responsible for the most-polluted zip code in Michigan, there is a something intangibly intriguing about the place. The smell of soot and sulfur permeates the air; the orange flame of the blast furnace could be seen from the road.

Zug Island has been a site of iron and steel production for the entirety of the 20th century. The Delray neighborhood, which borders Zug on the opposite side of the Rouge River, transformed from a thriving Hungarian community with stores and restaurants into one of the most industrialized neighborhoods in Michigan. The EPA reports on the site show repeat “high priority violations” and identify the site as a “significant noncomplier,” but U.S. Steel chose to pay more than $2.7 million in fines rather than change its practices. Its pollutants caused air contamination that has been linked to myriad health issues in the area.

In April 2020, the U.S. Steel Mill idled operations at Zug Island. An estimated 1,500 jobs were lost. Although it was dangerous work, the steel mill offered economic stability for a large group of workers. The chance of the American Dream, at an American cost.

Local environmentalists and activists worry about the cost of cleaning up the site for future development. It is classified as a brownfield, which the EPA defines as a property where redevelopment or reuse “may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” There is currently a $50 million contaminated sediment remediation underway in the Old Channel (the natural bend in the River Rouge), financed in a public-private partnership between the EPA and Honeywell Inc. (the latter owns Detroit Coke, one of the polluters), but no definitive plans for the island itself.

In the summer of 2020, construction began on the Gordie Howe International Bridge between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, which will have its U.S. Port of Entry in Delray, directly across Jefferson from Fort Wayne. When finished it will have the longest main span of any cable-stayed bridge in North America, complete with bike lanes and a pedestrian walkway. The project will create an estimated 2,500 jobs.

With the construction of the bridge, Delray may remain a heavily industrialized sector, populated by trucks and the remaining industries in River Rouge. Yet international crossings also offer the opportunity for commercial life, to bring restaurants and shops back into the area. Residents of the Delray community have been offered the option to relocate, but many inhabitants want to stay. For some of them, the neighborhood has been their only home. Despite the grime and the decay, the pollution and the dereliction, there is still a beauty to the neighborhood.

A Chance for Reparations and Renewal along the River Rouge

The closing of the steel mill opens a new question for the neighborhood: What happens next on Zug Island? In Curbed Detroit, journalist Brian Allnutt points to Gas Works Park in Seattle as a model for what Zug Island could be—both “a space for nature” and “homage to an industrial past.” To take this idea one step further, why not let this junction in the land’s history offer both reparations to representative tribes and renewal for the current community? Opening a park on the site of the brownfield and across from the former Great Mound could bring the burial mounds back into public consciousness and create a space for reparations.

The question of what reparations can look like for Indigenous peoples—who are continuing to battle for the rights to land deemed as theirs—is complicated. Even the term “reparations” is problematic: it implies an economic solution, which, as Indigenous studies scholar Daniel Wildcat points out, is a very American approach. Writing in the Washington PostWildcat explains that “For many Native Americans, our land… is a natural relative, not a natural resource. And our justice traditions require the restoration of our land relationship.” What would Zug Island look like if the land were returned to Indigenous care, with federal funding for its restoration guided by Indigenous stewardship practices?

Change is already on its way. The City of Detroit recently reached an agreement with the National Park Service on a proposal to revitalize Fort Wayne through a “rehabilitation in lieu of rent” model, in which public and private organizations can pay to restore historical buildings for the right to occupy them for a length of time commensurate to the investment. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi may be one of these partners, reclaiming the remaining burial mound along with a museum on the grounds.

On that day in Fort Wayne, I stood with my sister in front of the remaining burial mound, a sadness in the space between us. Beyond the mound to the southwest was a bluff. This is what I had imagined the edge of the Great Mound to look like, the rising gradation of the land reminding me of the steep hike up Maiden Castle. I headed to the top to scan the landscape: to my left, the skyline of downtown Detroit and the blue-and-white span of the Ambassador Bridge; to my right, the smoky haze and dark outlines of furnaces and cranes at Zug Island wrapped in the crook of the River Rouge as it bends to meet the Detroit River. I slipped off my mittens to take a picture, and the sun was warm on the bare skin of my hands. The sense-image reminded me of passages I had compared in Hardy’s story and Hubbard’s Memorials, where figures relish in the warm sun on the top of each earthwork.

I imagined this as the place where Hubbard stood and reflected on the changes to the landscape already taking place in the late nineteenth century along this river, and I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between my view here and on the top of Maiden Castle, the way the Detroit landscape reveals the consequences of economically motivated decisions. Ironically, the well-preserved Maiden Castle, as an English Heritage site, is a source of income for Dorchester, adding to its draw for tourism. Standing there, I breathed in the sense of what the Great Mound must have looked like hundreds of years ago

It is not too late for Delray, for this legacy in Detroit’s landscape, for Zug Island. Rehabilitating the brownfield left by Zug Island’s industrial past into a public park could pay tribute to its Indigenous history and spur economic activity for the community. We cannot change the past or retrieve what was lost, but we can shape what will stand in the future. Our opportunity is now.


Teaser photo credit: By Notorious4life (talk) – Own work (Original text: I (Notorious4life (talk)) created this work entirely by myself.), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11579249

Anna West

ANNA WEST is a writer and researcher with a background in literary criticism. She covers the way we navigate changing landscapes (physical and metaphorical), as well as the neuroscience of learning and all things literary. She has published peer-reviewed essays on Victorian literature and animal studies in academic journals and collections, including the Journal of Victorian Literature. She holds an MFA from Spalding University and a Ph.D. from the University of St Andrews. A native Detroiter, Anna currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her book, Thomas Hardy and Animals, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. She can be reached at www.annaewest.com

Tags: indigenous lifeways, indigenous rights, reparations