Commentary: The last St. Louis mound
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 13, 2010 - We have all been to Cahokia Mounds and have read the plaques about the history of the Mound Builders. However, did you know that ancestrally the Osage are a part of the Mound Builders?
I have always found it interesting that people do not understand that Native American cultures have existed for as long as, say, the Egyptian culture. It seems that people do not usually grasp that many indigenous civilizations established permanent or urban settlements, agriculture, civic and monumental architecture and forms and complex societal hierarchies. Popular belief is that Native Americans have been unchanged since prehistoric times.
American civilizations at the time of European encounter possessed many extraordinary accomplishments. Post European contact saw the rapid decline of indigenous populations by infectious disease, displacement and warfare. Many of the people and much of the land were ravaged all across the country. However, in the case of Cahokia, which consists of Monk's Mound and 69 surrounding mounds, not all was lost.
Mounds were used for housing and ceremonial purposes. Some of them or parts of some mounds were used for burials.
The timeline for this complex society dates from about 700 AD to 1400 AD. At its peak (1050 AD to 1200 AD), the Cahokians boasted about 100,000 people in the immediate area. As with other civilizations, such as the Maya, there is controversy as why the mound culture declined. Some scientists believe an earthquake changed the course of the river, depleting agricultural resources, which would have caused the group to divide into smaller clusters, forcing them to migrate in all directions. This could account for much of the similarities of the many nations in cultural traditions and languages.
The groups that remained in this expansive area retained many of the traditions and systems of the Mound builders. These are known as the Dhegiha Siouxian subgroup, made up of the tribes now known as the Osage, Kaw, Omaha, Ponca and Quapaw.
The Osage remained in this area for the longest period after they divided. Known as Niu-Konska (Little Ones of the Middle Waters) to themselves, the Osage more than likely remained around the Missouri River. When Marquette discovered them in 1673, the Osage were known as Wah-zah zhe, which sounded like "Osage." At the height of their power in the early 18th century, the Osage were the dominant tribe in the region. They controlled a territory that covered what is now all of Missouri, one third of Illinois, 70 percent of Arkansas, all of Kansas,and almost all of Oklahoma. It is important to realize that between 1808 and 1870 the Osage ceded over 100 million acres of land to the Euro-American people.
I cannot help but wonder what members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition saw and thought as they traveled the Missouri River in 1804. A lithograph done by John Casper Wilde in 1840 showed mounds on both sides of the river as far as the eye could see. Of the mounds in and around the St. Louis/Cahokia region, the majority had been destroyed by 1904.
One of the lone survivors on the west side of the Mississippi is Sugarloaf Mound, though it is not unscathed. Here in south St. Louis, with houses on and around it, remains a last reminder of the Native American past.
Ask yourselves what this sole landmark brings to mind. It should be a glaring reminder that Native Americans were a civilized, organized and complex group of peoples living and communicating with each other. For centuries, as you all know, the indigenous nations of this land have been viewed as savages, an uncivilized and expendable people. This mound only illustrates the ignorance that is still so prevalent. Throughout history, people refused to see beyond their own frame of reference. They conquer and destroy the unknown, unable to recognize what can be learned from cultures that had lived and thrived for centuries?
Being here and recognizing the historical and cultural importance of Sugarloaf Mound should help reconnect us with our heritage. Just as the pyramids of Egypt remind us of the cultural and historical significance that ancient Egyptian society played in Middle East and beyond, so too should we be reminded of the cultural and historical significance that not only the Osage, but the Native American people as a whole, could have contributed to the country's growth if not suppressed by the greed and oversight of a ravenous nation.
I look ahead and see a desperate need for reconnection, though some is occurring. The Spirituality of the Native Americans - the oneness with all - is endeavoring to be reborn. People are seeking to find a connection with the earth, the sky and the waters. Many of the traditional thoughts once held dear by Native Americans are reawakening. We are at a crossroads - no different from any other time in history. Destruction, devastation and displacement of one kind or another have brought us back to what is ours to care for: Mother Earth, Father Sky, the Great Waters and those brothers and sisters that live "with us" on this land.
Sugarloaf Mound is a reminder of cultures past and present and will continue to teach many the historical significance of the ancient Osage. The interpretive center that will be built here will teach children and be the voice of the great nation of the Osage. Great Nations never cease to exist if the children remember them and teach their children.
Eve Pearlmutter is working with the Osage Nation to promote education. The article is condensed from remarks she made at a Beacon Festival gathering.