Prehistoric Indian Village is nestled between trees growing tall on a bluff above what is now Lake Mitchell. Before the dam was built, Firesteel Creek fed the area. It’s not difficult to find, if you pay attention to the signs leading you there (I didn’t). Jerry and I eventually found our way, but as we pulled into the parking lot I wondered where we were supposed to go. I could see the building I expected was the museum (I was wrong – the tan one is the Archeodome), but no way to get there! Once to the edge of the parking lot, it became clear, so Jerry and I followed the red-pebbled path leading down the hill, across a footbridge and up a short rise – and there was the official entrance to the fenced-in grounds.
The morning was a beautiful one. There was no snow on the ground, no ice on the lake, and the cloud-obscured sunlight gave an other-worldly cast to the surroundings. For the first time this year, I could smell spring on the breeze, and my heart was light as I picked my way up the path of frozen footprints to the door.
We were greeted by Eric, who was the only staff member on duty at the time. He briefly explained a bit about the museum and the dig site, then guided us into the back room where he set up a video for us to watch. Narrated by Doctor L. Adrien Hannus of Augustana College Archaeology Laboratory, who has managed the dig since 1983, the video explains what archaeologists believe was the source of the Indian Village; where they migrated from, why they grew the crops they did, and what probably caused them to move on. Eric then offered a guided tour of the museum; if one of the other staff members arrived to keep watch on the front desk, he promised to show us around the Archeodome. I was encouraged to take pictures so long as I didn’t use the flash – you have to love tripods!
I was amazed to realize that there is an actual dig site – not just an interactive display of one, but an actual, active archaeological dig site! – on the grounds. (Jerry was enthused about the time of year and day we were there; we were the only guests in the museum, and so we had Eric and the exhibits all to ourselves.) A permanent building, the Thomsen Center Archeodome, has been created around it to give the exposed site (and the participants) protection from the elements as they work it. It’s estimated that digging the entire enclosed area to a depth of twelve feet will take fifty years.
Because of “the three sisters” – maize, beans and squash – and other crops that these more settled people planted (tobacco, sunflower, amaranth), archaeologists can tell they migrated from the south, probably via the river systems. They settled this area roughly a thousand years ago, lived at the village site for about a hundred years, and then moved on. Now, contrary to what people might naturally assume, it wasn’t war, disease or famine that drove these people onward; archaeologists now speculate it was the lack of timber, given how much was used in building their homes as well as what they burned to cook in the summer and keep warm in the winter.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell how many people lived in the village at any given time. The lodges they built were sturdy, but still made only of earth and wood and so susceptible to the ravages of wind, rain and time; each and every single one has collapsed and the ground filled in, the wood of the frames rotted away. There’s nothing left to determine a “when” of either construction or destruction. Likewise, any tool that could be used to measure age – animal hide for clothes, wooden handles lashed to the bison scapula or deer antlers for hoes and rakes – is also gone.
It’s difficult to piece together what might have happened or what might have been when all you have left to determine what was are the most durable pieces – stone, bone, and location. One thing that archaeologists now believe is that there was extensive trade both up and down the river; trade goods have been found at the Village from as far away as the Pacific Northwest, and from as far south as Mexico.
The major product of the Prehistoric Indian Village is thought to have been pemmican – the original trail mix, made from meat so dried it’s almost powder, bone grease and dried berries (often chokecherries here in the village). “They were actually boiling the broken-up, the crushed-up bones to extract this bone grease,” said Eric on the tour, stopping next to a case dedicated to pemmican. “This is after they’d already removed the marrow, so it’s not the marrow specifically… They were actually boiling the leftover grease out of the otherwise-useless bones just to take advantage of such a rich, nutritious source of food.” He grins, and his eyes shine – its easy to tell he loves working here, but also that he loves to share it with others. “You could crush up dried grains and mix it in there… it was basically a trail ration. Also a good winter food, because stored properly the stuff could last for years and years.”
“There’s some evidence they might have been mass-producing the stuff here to trade with other people,” Eric adds. That evidence of the village as a pemmican factory was discovered by the team working the site in 2013; entire pits of chopped-up, boiled bison bone.
Jerry and I explored for hours, prowling the museum, learning how to throw an arrow with an atlatl, walking up and down the ramp circling the dig site.
The path leading to the Thomsen Center Archeodome from the museum is made of red brick, oddly zigging and zagging between the buildings. Cindy, the Executive Director, explained that its course was determined by what areas of the site had already been disturbed. It drives home the fact that this is a place of real archaeological significance, one of the pivotal Northern Plains sites, primarily because it has lain almost completely undisturbed for a thousand years; never plowed, never interfered with except by wildlife.
Because of the site’s importance, amateurs are no longer permitted in the pit. They are, however, welcome when the time comes to wash and sort through the artifacts. Jerry and I are already planning on returning when the site is being actively worked in late June. Outside that one restriction, visitors are invited, even encouraged, to actually touch the open exhibits! There are tables with tubs set up for (not just) kids to separate pottery fragments from broken bone; the lab is open, with artifacts under the microscope; dioramas of the layers archaeologists had to dig through and display cases of what they found… I quivered inside as I held in my hands a heavy stone maul, touched the impact marks of the thousand-year-old tool, feeling the history and the wonder of holding something created and rubbed smooth without power tools or metal…
Describing that moment to my brother the day we got back, I became aware of how fast I was talking and the increasingly high-pitched, excited squeal to my voice and realized I was – as the expression goes – “geeking out.” I can’t help it. That kind of physical connection to active history stirs a deep sense of respect, almost a reverence, in my heart and soul. Not because the object is old, exactly, although that’s part of it. More so because with that object in my hand instead of closed behind glass or plexi, the people who lived so long ago become real in my mind and imagination; I can picture their lives – their homes, their technology (however ‘primitive’ it seems compared to our cell phones and cars), their food, their challenges. And then I wonder what future archaeologists will believe about us, when the time comes to unearth our rubbish heaps and dig through our cities. That leads to thoughts about what those future folk might be able to learn about sites like this with their assumed continuing advances in technology, and the worry and hope that sites like this one will still be available for them – because the past, after all, should be forever.
Prehistoric Indian Village
3200 Indian Village Road Mitchell, South Dakota 57301
April and May, September and October, Monday – Saturday from 9:00-6:00, Sunday (May and September only) from 10:00 to 6:00; Memorial day to Labor Day, Monday -Saturday 8:00 to 7:00, Sunday 10:00 to 6:00; November to March by appointment only, weather permitting
Adults $6.00; Seniors (60 and up) $5.00; Ages 6-18 $4.00; 5 and under Free. Group rates are available
(605) 996-5473 or firstname.lastname@example.org