Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves more than 200 mounds built by Native Americans on a scenic bluff overlooking the Upper Mississippi River Valley in northeast Iowa. The site is considered sacred by many Indian tribes.
Much remains a mystery about the earthen monuments that are preserved here, for the people who built them left no written records or oral history. We do know that between 850 and 1400 years ago, Native Americans built thousands of mounds across the eastern half of North America. In virtually all these places, they built conical mounds. But in a swath of land in Iowa and Wisconsin, they constructed mounds shaped like bears, birds, turtles, and other animals.
Why did they build these effigy mounds? We don’t know for certain, but they were likely religious or ceremonial sites. Some of the animal-shaped mounds show evidence that fires were lit at their head, heart, or flank. A small percentage of the mounds contain human remains.
Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves 206 of these mounds, 31 in the form of animals. They stretch along a high bluff that borders the Mississippi River, a gorgeous spot with panoramic views and thick forests.
The mounds themselves are rounded earthen shapes, easily mistaken for natural formations if you don’t know what you are looking at. But there is nevertheless something hushed and sacred about this place. When a place has been hallowed with prayers and rituals for hundreds of years, it somehow changes the quality of the air and soil.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.