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Who will buy a pre-Columbian mound?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 30, 2009 - Trapped between Interstate 55 and an industrial stretch of the Mississippi River sits the remaining Native American mound of St. Louis. And it's for sale.

Sugarloaf Mound, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is recognized as the last surviving example of what had been an extensive and impressive mound group. While many organizations and individuals are working hard to acquire and preserve the mound, it's premature to speculate who may eventually post the $400,000 asking price.

"The ambiguity, as I understand it," said Andrew Weil, a researcher with the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, "stems from a question about whether the mound is a 'building' to which the city can apply the various ordinances that are typically invoked for protection of historic buildings."

A simple house sits on the property. It is not historic. The land is. Kristin Zapalac, of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, provided articles published in early St. Louis newspapers that talked about the "Big Mound." An article from 1841 featuring the discovery of a "recent burial" on top of the mound.

"Mounds were often, but not always, places of interment for the dead," says Judith Deel, an archaologist with the state Historic Preservation Office. "Some mounds served as platforms for ceremonial structures and/or residences for important people in the community."

Historically, the two times when large mounds were constructed were the Middle Woodland Period (ca. 100 BC-AD 300) or the Mississippian Period (ca. AD 1050-1400) Generally, Middle Woodland mounds are conical. This raises the possibility of Sugarloaf being Mississippian.

Terry Norris, an archeologist with the St. Louis Corps of Engineers, found a 1904 U.S. Geological Survey map in which a contour interval depicts an elongated oval where the mound is located.

"In looking at the 1904 map and the surrounding landscape the mound not only overlooks the Mississippi; just to the west is an area of sinkholes," said John Kelly, archeologist and lecturer at Washington University. "These are important portals into the underworld and important part of American Indian cosmology today and at least for the last 1000 years."

In Illinois, roughly seven miles from Sugarloaf mound, is the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. (Incidentally, this property bought in 1831 by T. Amos Hill, who built a house on top of the platform of Monk's mound. Not only that, he sunk a well that revealed archeological and human remains.) Today, visitors from around the world visit the interpretive museum and mounds each year.

Should the Sugarloaf property go the direction of Cahokia?

"I think that the best use for the mound would be as a public interpretive park," said Weil. "Ideally, interpretation would address the cultures that inhabited St. Louis prior to the settlement of European and African peoples in the 18th century, the historical importance of the mound itself to the city, and perhaps some information regarding the ecology and geology of the Mississippi Valley of which the mound has an excellent view."

Although many archeologists hesitate to offer public opinion on a possible relationship between the St. Louis mound group and the mounds at Cahokia, they know Missouri's native peoples used the river much as we use the highways of today. Therefore, it's plausible that St. Louis' earliest people established communities and mounds similar to that of their neighbors at Cahokia.

Having said that, mound preservation in urban and suburban settings is a bit of a Catch-22 situation. On one hand, citizens need to know about the mounds in St. Louis and St. Louis County. On the other, this knowledge could lead to looting because many of the mounds are not protected.

Future of the mound

Interested citizens can let their aldermen, state representatives and the mayor's office know whether they think preservation of Sugarloaf Mound is important.

Landmarks Association is seeking tax-deductible donations to a fund dedicated to acquisition (and perhaps interpretation or maintenance) of the property.

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"The public should know about the mounds," says Mark Leach, founder of the Missouri Mound Adoption Project. "They should be given the opportunity to support mound preservation. But perhaps, the precise locations should be held in confidence."

Sugarloaf and other surviving mounds are considered special places for the Native American tribes. Mounds are visible evidence of their culture. In general, tribes are angered by the treatment of Native American burials over the last century. Specific to Sugarloaf, the Osage are working to preserve the mound and are very pleased with the commitment of the people to save it.

Deel adds, "The preservation of Sugarloaf would respect the views and beliefs of the tribes, while at the same time offering an opportunity for educating the interested public about a part of the region's history that is not well known."

Christian Cudnik is a freelance writer.

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