Grand Mound is a site of deep historic and rich cultural significance. Located along the Rainy River near International Falls, it comprises five sacred burial mounds, ancient villages, and sturgeon fishing sites developed approximately 2,000 years ago. The Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) acquired the historic site in 1970 but it has been closed to the public since 2002.
The Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) decided in October 2018 to keep the Grand Mound Historic Site closed to the general public, following the wishes of descendants of Native Americans who are buried at the sacred site. The site will be accessible to Native Americans for ceremonial and educational purposes.
“This site is first and foremost a burial ground with thousands of human remains still interred there,” said Joe Horse Capture, director of Native American Initiatives at MNHS. “This decision honors Native ancestors and ensures respect for Native American culture and history.”
MNHS will continue to preserve the mounds while working toward a long-range plan for the site’s future that includes the possible transfer of the site to a Native American tribe or tribes. In the immediate future, MNHS will research options regarding the future of the site’s visitor center, and staff will work with both Native and non-Native stakeholders to develop educational outreach opportunities to share the history of Grand Mound with the general public.
“Grand Mound is part of an interconnected line of burial mounds that runs for 90 miles along the Canadian and U.S. sides of the Rainy River,” said Kent Whitworth, MNHS director and CEO. “The historical importance of this site cannot be understated, but we must protect it and provide education while also ensuring that Native people can care for the place where their ancestors lie.”
MNHS acquired Grand Mound in 1970, opened a visitor center in 1976, and operated it as a publicly accessible historic site until 2002 when budget cuts forced its closure. Since then, MNHS has continued to maintain preservation and security of the historic site while exploring options for its future.
In 2014, MNHS began the most recent effort to engage community members about the site, speaking with business, civic, educational and cultural leaders from International Falls and Koochiching County as well as Native American and Canadian First Nations peoples. In 2017, MNHS expanded Native American engagement to include all seven Ojibwe and four Dakota tribes in Minnesota, as well as exiled communities and Native Americans outside the state who have a cultural connection to Grand Mound. A total of 18 Native communities provided feedback. Across the board, both Native and non-Native stakeholders repeatedly expressed the importance of preserving and educating the public about Grand Mound.
In October 2018 the MNHS Executive Council (board) reviewed and approved a report (PDF) summarizing that engagement and recommending the site remain closed to the general public, except for access by Native Americans for ceremonial and educational purposes.
Grand Mound Historic Site is one of 25 National Historic Landmarks in Minnesota.
The largest of the five mounds is 25 feet high and 140 feet long. It is:
- Minnesota’s largest Native American earthwork
- the largest surviving “prehistoric” structure in the Upper Midwest
- the only effigy mound of this type in Minnesota
Some interpret the mound’s unique diamond shape and long “tail” to be a muskrat or serpent. While most mounds were built in high elevations, Grand Mound was built in a floodplain close to the Rainy and Big Fork Rivers.
Grand Mound Historic Site is part of a chain of more than 20 burial mounds that runs for 90 miles along the Canadian and U.S. sides of the Rainy River.
Regional context: Grand Mound and other features, both natural and constructed
Grand Mound Historic Site map
This interconnected cultural landscape also includes sturgeon fishing sites and seasonal villages. Grand Mound’s village site was a spring gathering place for the harvest of spawning fish and a spiritual center for Indigenous peoples.
At the beginning of the Woodland Period (200 BCE-650 CE) the Laurel Culture inhabited an area stretching across today’s northern Minnesota, the section of Ontario along Lake Superior, and portions of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Archaeologists tell us that the Laurel Native Americans built Grand Mound and other mounds along the Rainy River, most likely to honor their dead.
Although it is not exactly known who the descendants of the Laurel Culture are today, research tells us that they may have been Algonquian speaking groups that could include the Cree, Blackfeet, and A’aninin (Gros Ventre); tribes that are now located north and west of Minnesota. The Nakoda’s (Assiniboine) ancestors may have interacted with the area prior to European contact.
There are also other non-Algonquian speaking tribal groups that could have ancestral tries to the site. Traditional Dakota stories also say they have had some interaction with Grand Mound over time. With the shifting of tribal groups during western expansion, many tribal groups were displaced over hundreds of years. The Ojibwe migration story tells us that they came to the area, including Minnesota, 500 years ago.