by Vince Bushell
In the warms days of 2013 I was researching the work of Increase Lapham. Lapham was a self taught surveyor, engineer and scientist, including botany, meteorology, and archaeology. His book, The Antiquities of Wisconsin, finished in 1852 and published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1855, is a fascinating record of the Indian mounds in our area. These Native American sites included various shapes – conical mounds and effigy mounds composed of animal shapes, occasionally human shapes. The shapes are somewhat abstract and simple forms made by piling soil to define the sacred site.
These mounds were often set in groupings and there were many in Milwaukee, including various groupings along the Milwaukee River and some in what is now Lake Park. Only one has survived in the city limits and that is the conical mound in Lake Park at the end of Locust Street.
Some conical mounds have burial remains that are estimated to be 2700 years old. These mounds can be large. The Underwater Panther mound that was along Humboldt Blvd near Garfield Ave. was recorded by Lapham as being over 200 feet long.
There are many stories associated with the mounds, particularly the effigy mounds. This is one told to me by Mike Wiggins Jr., Bad River Tribal Chairman. Wiggins was visiting the Co-op Cafe with a videographer I knew.
I was working on recreating an effigy mound on a smaller scale along the river. It was the mound called Mishipishu or Underwater Panther. I mentioned this to Wiggins and he told me this story.
The great beast that was Mishipishu lived in the deeps of Gitche Gumee (Lake Superior). The spirit of the underwater panther was the most powerful underworld being. The Ojibwe traditionally held them to be masters of all water creatures, including snakes. They were depicted in drawings as having long tails, with spike shaped forms along the back and tail. They were the counterforce to the spirit in the skies, the Thunderbird. The underworld and the spirits of the sky were in conflict but also balancing forces. Often malevolent but also giving great things.
The beast rose out of Gitche Gumee, making noises like a stormy sea. The serpent like creature opened its great mouth, and out of it flowed the sturgeon. A gift for all generations.
Danger and creation were both aspects of Mishepishu.
The next day I worked with volunteers. We built our own small effigy mound. A representation of Mishepishu that was once on top of the hill next to the river. A long low serpent-like hill with two protrusions on one end. We planted it with native prairie wildflowers. So we too may remember those who came before.
This spring I saw the DNR catch and release a 51 inch sturgeon near our mound. Once gone from the lake, they are now returning. Maybe they too remember from where they came.