Mounds of Hope
Something to think
about in Alaska
By Tim Wintermute
In the last half of August my wife Kathleen and I visited Alaska. We hadn’t been there in seven years and wanted not only to see some of our favorite places, but to visit friends. After spending five days in Dutch Harbor/Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, which is another story, and several days in Valdez, which may or may not be another story, along with some days in Anchorage, we joined our friends Patrice and Bill Parker on a drive down Turnagain Arm to Hope. Bill drove expertly as gusty winds and rain showers tried to push us off the road and into the bay where high tide had replaced the sucking mud of the tidal flats with wind whipped white caps. After we reached Portage Glacier where Turnagain turns back toward the Gulf of Alaska and were on the Kenai Peninsula, the weather turned as well. By the time we arrived in Hope the wind had died and the sun was out. I say “arrived” advisedly, because if there hadn’t been a sign planted in the pine trees announcing “Welcome to Hope, Alaska’s Best Preserved Gold Rush Town”, I wouldn’t have known we had entered a town.
Naming a town Hope on a creek called Resurrection where it empties into a bay named Turnagain Arm seems like something pilgrims seeking God rather than prospectors searching for gold would do, but that’s what happened in 1886, although come to think about it both are acts of faith rather than reason. Even though Hope was founded two decades before Anchorage more than a century later almost half of Alaska’s population live in Anchorage, while less than one hundred people reside in Hope and that’s with a loose definition of reside. The difference might be partially or maybe totally attributed to Hope being founded by prospectors who hoped to extract gold from the earth while Anchorage was founded by merchants who extracted it from the prospector’s pockets. Unlike Hope, which was the terminus of a creek, Anchorage was the main terminal of the newly constructed Alaskan Railroad and soon became Alaska’s commercial capital. Alaska’s political capital on the other hand is in Juneau, a town with no railroad or any roads that lead anywhere, which if nothing else seems to be an effective geographic limit on government.
After a brief tour of Hope’s historic town center consisting of some rustic buildings and an equally rustic campground, Bill drove us to their cabin where we would finally see for ourselves and possibly understand what Bill had been up to on his trips to Hope over the past twenty years. Although every time we met he explained what he was doing Bill described it in a way that left it covered in a narrative mist as thick as what we had passed through on our drive down Turnagain Arm. The only thing I understood was that while most people in Alaska engage in hunting or fishing or climbing mountains or traversing glaciers, or claim to anyway, and more than a few disappear into the Wild, Bill Parker piles up mounds of dirt.
After parking we walked toward the Parker’s cabin on a raised pathway that instead of following a straight line seemed to slither through the trees. The slithering made sense when Bill explained that what we were walking on was a snake or, more precisely, a one third scale re-creation of the 1348 foot Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio, which is the largest serpent mound in the world. When we got to the end of the serpent, or maybe it was the tail, I don’t recall, Bill led us over to a one half scale re-creation of the Bird Mound that spreads its 624 feet wings on the grounds of a mental hospital in Madison, Wisconsin and is the largest bird effigy mound in the world. While snakes and birds are native to Alaska effigy mounds, which are raised mounds of earth shaped like an animal or bird, are an invasive species introduced by Bill. True, there are animal and bird effigies created by Alaska’s natives, but they are carved out of wood rather than earth and even the tallest totem poles don’t come close to matching the scale of the mounds. All of this struck me as ironic and it did seem to me that Bill Parker is not only a mound builder but a prospector of irony. Unlike the prospectors who even now after a century of disappointment still pan for gold dust in the ice cold waters of Resurrection Creek, Bill has been able to find a motherlode of irony in his mounds. When he talks about the mounds he circles the point rather than gets straight to it, conveying the irony that there is no point without the story.
Indian Effigy Mounds have not only given Bill something to do with his hands, but something to think about, and indeed Bill ends many of his stories by saying “something to think about”. The mounds are found in what Alaskan’s refer to as the lower 48, primarily in the north central part. Although Bill like most Alaskan’s grew up in the lower 48 he had never seen one until twenty years ago when he was “released” from his job as Alaska’s Assistant Commissioner of Corrections after the election of what would become a long line of Republican Governors (Bill is not only a Democrat, but a political contrarian who, for example was a leader of the campaign to legalize Marijuana in Alaska that started in 1972 and finally succeeded in 2014). Bill and a friend took a driving tour of the lower 48 and came across the Serpent Mound, which was hard to miss if you happened to be passing through Peebles, Ohio. Archeologists differ as to who built the effigy mound. The prevailing view is that it was built in 300 BCE by the Adena peoples, but some experts dispute that arguing that the Adena peoples are not known to have built any other effigy mounds, so it was more likely built by another group, the Fort Ancient culture. The largest grouping of Indian Mounds in Ohio, of which effigy mounds are a subclassification, were first discovered at another place with "hope" in its name - Hopewell Farm.
After Bill decided to build a scale model of the Serpent Mound next to his cabin in Hope he found out about the Bird Mound and built a scale model of it as well. (With some 20,000, Wisconsin has more effigy mounds than any other state although none are of badgers, which is the official Wisconsin State animal). When viewing the effigy mounds I couldn’t help but ask the question as why they did it? The builders left no written explanation for why or how they built the mounds or any writing about anything for that matter. A widely accepted theory as to why the mounds were built is that they are religious symbols since the figures are all of animals (birds, serpents, bears, etc.) that are associated with the spirit world. Another theory is that they were built by tribes to mark their territory - signs made of soil. However, unlike painted pictographs and etched petroglyphs found on rocks and cave walls one would have to be hovering hundreds and in some cases thousands of feet in the air to view the effigy mounds in their entirety. This leads to still another theory that is so far out of the box it is in outer space -that they were created by extra-terrestrials as works of art. In fact, it might not be so outlandish a theory since they could be considered “Land Art” (also called environmental art), which according to Artland Magazine “is a practice or form of art production that utilizes natural materials or sites the work outside in various settings in order to interact with nature in some way”. Who knows, maybe the effigy mounds are part of some intergalactic art gallery?
Bill didn’t seem to favor any particular theory. He said that by building the effigy mounds he thought he might understand the motivation of the builders of the original ones, but it still remains a mystery. As to why Bill built his own effigy mounds the answer seems as elusive as the gold that the prospectors pan for in Hope, Alaska’s Resurrection Creek. Although it is “something to think about”.