Washington, DC — One of the biggest and most embarrassing official mass desecrations of Indian pre-historic burial sites has gone unpunished and un-remedied years after discovery, according to documents released today by Friends of Effigy Mounds and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The National Park Service (NPS) has identified more than 78 illegal structures at Effigy Mounds National Monument intruding on the very ancient Indian mounds the monument is supposed to protect. Yet, years later none have been removed.
From 2001 until her voluntary transfer in 2011, Superintendent Phyllis Ewing presided over a construction boom throughout Effigy Mounds National Monument in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act and other statutes. Located in northeast Iowa on the banks of the Mississippi, the Monument contains more than 200 prehistoric burial mounds between 700 and 2,500 years old each in the shape of a stylized animal, symbol or other figure. An internal NPS investigation found that Ewing –
- Oversaw more than $3 million in illegal “empire building” with boardwalks, trails and other structures doing “significant adverse damage” to irreplaceable archaeological artifacts;
- Submitted false reports to the Regional office and feigned ignorance of legal requirements for historic review and tribal consultation in which she had received training; and
- Removed cultural resource specialists from project review. Instead, compliance responsibility was vested in Chief of Facilities Maintenance Thomas Sinclair – the person also in charge of building the projects – who claimed to be a “para-archaeologist.”
“The era of Ewing and Sinclair was devastating to our little park’s cultural and natural resources,” said Timothy Mason of Friends of Effigy Mounds and a former long-time Monument employee whose 2010 complaint to the Interior Office of Inspector General was referred back to NPS to investigate itself. “Their actions left an indelible stain on the history of the National Park Service. The spirits buried in these wooded hills are spinning with indignation in their graves.”
The voluminous internal investigation by Special Agent David Barland-Liles contains many damning statements by NPS officials that Ewing’s tenure represented an “extreme example” of law-breaking, she had “destroyed the park” and “violated the essence of what the NPS is supposed to be doing” plus “Wherever they had a chance to screw up they did.” However, the probe only looked at a handful of illegal projects and did not answer why problems reported for years by Monument staff fell on deaf ears in the Regional Office. Nor did Special Agent Barland-Liles write a final Report of Investigation with formal findings and recommendations. Incredibly, no one was disciplined for this cascade of violations:
- The NPS Regional Director explained that he took no disciplinary action against Ewing because he felt she had “no design to do anything devious.” Instead, he left her in place for more than year to prove herself and help “the park recover.” Eventually she was allowed to voluntarily transfer to a regional museum curator position at the same pay level;
- Ewing contended that throughout her tenure she received excellent evaluations and performance awards. Ewing had been fast-tracked for superintendent due to her “leadership potential”; and
- All of the illegal structures remain despite tribal leaders’ complaints that the web of boardwalks meant their “ancient cemeteries should be treated as places to walk your dog,” in the words of one.
“This fiasco proves that a national park superintendent will not be fired for incompetence no matter how egregious,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, comparing the relentless hounding by NPS of perceived whistleblowers. “On the career ladder of today’s National Park Service, politics counts far more than protecting the natural and cultural resources entrusted to them – just look at Phyllis Ewing.”
It took both groups nearly 8 months to pry these documents out of NPS under the Freedom of Information Act. Mason’s group is also trying to draw attention to still further official depredations at Effigy Mounds, such as NPS breaking into ancient mounds to “repatriate” other Indian remains.