Bring Native American Mounds Back to Forest Park: a Rally STL Submission

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The following is an idea I submitted to Rally STL. Unfortunately, none of the images submitted were included in the post on their site, and the idea is really a visual one. The description and reasoning is below, but beyond that, one of the best things is that this idea is imminently affordable. Check out the idea and go to Rally STL and vote it up. You can vote for an idea once each day.

Edit: As a result of the excellent comments made below, I have sent this proposal to an historic preservation officer of the Osage Nation. Clearly there exist a myriad of cultural and historical concerns when considering a project of this sort, and it would never progress without the involvement of relevant groups. However, earthen mounds have a long and varied history and even mounds evocative of the region's history could play an important educational role.

One of early nicknames for St. Louis was Mound City. Now not much in use, the name paid homage to the legacy of Native American mound builders which remained into the past century as the city was expanded and developed. While Cahokia Mounds in Illinois is well known, mounds in the City of St. Louis were destroyed, including during construction for the 1904 World's Fair in Forest Park. We celebrate the fair in many ways, but not what it destroyed. The celebrate our region's cultural history, commemorative mounds should be built in the park.

Forest Park_mound
{image of mound in Forest Park prior to destruction for 1904 World's Fair}

This project proposes building half a dozen earthen mounds in Forest Park, perhaps within the grove of trees adjacent to the visitor center, or between the visitor center parking lot and Pagoda Circle. The location need not be specific. The earthen mounds, covered in grass, would be inexpensive to build and maintain. Building the mounds itself could be a community project and provide a hands-on way to explore the history of those living hear 1,000 years ago.

Fullscreen capture 1232012 20957 PM.bmp
{a granite marker notes the spot in North City where the Big Mound once stood}

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{Sugarl Loaf Mound is the last mound left in Mound City}

The presence of small mounds of ~10ft in height would have numerous benefits, including creating an attractive sense of place, provide creative play space for children and serve as an educational site with descriptive signage. Their presence in Forest Park would not only be historically accurate, but also bring the story of our region's incredible history to our most treasured and visited park.

FP mounds
{mounds could appear similar to these at Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in Ohio}

mound
{the mounds could serve multiple purposes – the Earthen Dove Effigy Mound in Wisconsin}

[edit] Added context for the Earthen Dove Effigy Mound:

The Earthen Dove Effigy Mound is a "living memorial" which pays tribute to POWs and MIAs. This "living memorial" is a replica of a Native American effigy mound. It was designed by David Giffey and constructed by volunteers from throughout Wisconsin. It contains soil from all 72 counties as well as hundreds of locations throughout the United States.

At a 1989 dedication ceremony, Vietnam veteran and Native American, John Beaudin (Wa Kanja Hoohega), explained the symbolic purpose of the mound: "It is a spiritual place where you can go and let your mother, the Earth, hold you. Let the children play on it. Dance on it. Use it to unload your grief and pain, to renew and strengthen you. Lay back in the soft fold of its wings and let Mother Earth unburden you. Then get up and leave your troubles and cares there on the mound, as you walk, away, renewed and refreshed."

Forest Park_mound2
{another image of a mound in Forest Park}

Forest Park_mound3
{a map of mounds in Forest Park – once on Art Hill and below}

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  • Presbyterian

    So am I right in understanding that seven mounds were on the current site of the Art Museum, and the remainder were near the western edge of the Grand Basin? If we could pinpoint the original location, I’d think reconstruction (at the original site when feasible) would take on some historical and cultural significance.

    I’d love to see one popping up through the floor in the basement of the Art Museum, with scattered and broken floor tiles surrounding the edges, as if the past erupted into the present, unwilling to remain buried alive any longer.

  • mh

    I think we should spend more time and money on saving what we currently have that is in danger than worry about creating replicas of the originals. Are you aware that the construction of the new underground parking at the Art Museum also destroyed some archaeological remains of both the Mississippian and French presence in Forest Park? Where was anyone trying to stop that?

    • Alex Ihnen

      Fair point. On one level, it’s difficult to do major construction anywhere in the region without disturbing artifacts. And practically speaking, attempting to stop the art museum expansion would have been difficult, to say the least. I think the value in building new mounds in Forest Park is in educational and cultural awareness. The power of these mounds would be the knowledge they transmit, not in authenticity, per se. Perhaps if visitors and residents were more aware of and familiar with the Native American history, we could demand more careful considering of construction on historic sites.

      • mh

        It takes less than 1% of an overall project costs to do an archaeological excavation. If the Art Museum had archaeologists come in and properly document before they destroyed it would be a completely different story. Most archaeologists, myself included, understand that preservation is not practical for everything, however, there is no valid reason for no proper documentation of a site before it is destroyed.

        Additionally Alex, another problem with your idea is that while you feel that it is cultural awareness, others (including the Osage who are currently the recognized descendants of the Mississippians), might find it offensive. Those mounds were built for socio-economic and religious reasons and the simple replication of them can not fully address that issue. Have you reached out to the Osage Nation about this particular idea and gotten their thoughts and feelings on this?

    • PhilS

      @mh I was unaware of the destruction of archaeological remains during the new SLAM construction. I can’t find anything searching the interwebs, could you point us to a source for more information about this loss? Thanks

      • Landmarks

        It would be in a 106 review of the project or an environmental impact report. Info on archaeological remains from reports like this is generally not available to the public because of the danger that looters would use the information to seek out identified sites to look for artifacts to dig and sell illegally.

      • Guest

        PhilS, you can’t find anything because no one reported on it. Landmarks is correct in saying that generally it is part of the 106 Process, however, because SLAM did not use federal funds this never underwent 106 Review. However, many in the archaeological community reached out to SLAM and told them that there were not only documented Mississippian Mounds but also a documented French burial ground on/near the location of SLAM and suggested that at the very least archaeologists be present while they were excavating for the improvements. SLAM refused, claiming that if they found anything they would notify the proper authorities. Not only is this idea ridiculous because they did not have people there who are properly trained to identify archaeological remains, but, as Landmarks can also attest to, the actual reporting of archaeological remains generally never happens. Most construction workers are under the wrong impression that finding archaeological remains means they will be shut down so they are under orders to not see anything.

        To underscore my point, no archaeology is being done before the improvements happen to the Arch grounds. Despite the fact that everyone knows there was an enormous Mississippian Village there and it was the location of the original French village founded by Laclede and Chouteau, those in charge of the project are simply saying there is no way anything could have survived and are blowing it off. Besides in archaeological circles, I have not heard the media or St. Louisians in general putting pressure on the government to not destroy their city’s history.

        • Alex Ihnen

          mh – I’d be interested in talking to you more about this. My email: alex@nextstl.com

  • Landmarks

    As an archaeologist who is familiar with the mounds in St. Louis and has friends and colleagues within various Native American groups who claim cultural patrimony in the region, I have to say that this proposal (while undoubtedly well-meaning) is more complicated than you may realize. Mounds were sacred sites to the people who built them, and remain sacred to many contemporary Native American groups. They were frequently burial places and their sites and arrangements were chosen for specific reasons. In many cases, the sacredness of the site preceded the construction of the mound. With regard to the mounds themselves, the shape, size, internal construction, orientation and arrangement of mounds was rooted in ancient religious/cultural systems. They were not simply piles of dirt. They were and are infused with meaning for the people who built them and their descendents.

    The destruction of ancient Native American monuments in St. Louis or anywhere was (and continues to be) a crime against the cultural heritage of humanity, but is particularly offensive to Native American groups. They see it as the desecration of their ancestor’s graves and beliefs, as it clearly is. “Reconstructing” mounds by simply piling up dirt in sacred locations (where mounds used to be) or in non-sacred locations (where they never were) for people to lounge around on and have picnics would be regarded as further insult-to-injury by many Native Americans. Rebuilding simulations of formerly sacred structures as a novelty for park patrons would further demonstrate to Native American groups that the descendents of the society that destroyed them in the first place (modern St. Louisans) still regard the mounds of the city as trivial curiosities rather than important sacred sites which represent the beliefs and accomplishments of ancient people.

    I understand that this proposal is not meant to be offensive, but consider this: how would you feel if a group of people came along and dug up a cemetery containing your ancestor’s graves and destroyed all of the religious or otherwise culturally-significant memorials and symbols in the process. They then put the skulls and jewelry they found in a museum to be gawked at, or in the case of many of the St. Louis mounds, sold the broken bones along with the tons of dirt that covered them to a railroad to build track alignments? Then, later on descendents of the same people who caused this destruction decided to rebuild the appearance of the cemetery with no real records of what it looked like or what any of the symbols meant and with no sense of reverence or understanding of what they were doing. They did this, by the way, without talking to you or the rest of your family about it, and then invited their friends to play Frisbee and walk their dogs on the simulated graves.

    Sorry to be a downer, but having worked with Native Americans on issues of cultural patrimony and the treatment of sacred sites, I know how irritating stuff like this can be to them. It is more than just a case of “too little, too late.” It is a case of “we still don’t get it and we are too lazy and/or insensitive to try.”

    • Alex Ihnen

      As an archeologist, I imagine you’re aware that not all mounds were cemeteries. Many cultures around the world recreate sacred and other culturally significant sites. All visitors to Cahokia and many other sites are encouraged to climb the mounds. Visitors to cathedrals, mosques, catacombs and other places are generally welcomed. Ultimately, this would need to be a culturally sensitive and educational process, one in which, presumably, the Osage Nation would be involved. Clearly no offense is intensed. If people don’t want to pursue the idea OK, but in its most simple form, earthen mounds are great placemakers and places of imagination – the reason they were built in the first place. I’ll reach out to the Osage Nation. In the meantime it seems a bit much to kill the idea outright. The goal, in whatever form, remains – to greatly increase awareness of the thousand plus years of cultural history here. This is best understood and learned through physical form, if feasible.

      • landmark

        Indeed I am aware that not all are burial sites. That is why I said that they “frequently” were burial sites. They always are sacred sites. Many mounds had multiple uses throughout hundreds of years and were created through multiple building episodes. There may be internal burial chambers dating to the Woodland Period embedded in a mound that 1,000 years later had evolved into a Mississippian platform or temple mound. There may be historic or proto-historic Native burials superimposed on a Mississippian mound that was not constructed as a burial site. The size, shape and grouping of the mounds in FP indicates that they were likely burial mounds that predated the Mississippian period by far (way more than 1,000+ years of cultural history in the area). Anyway, I don’t fault you for the idea, but I wanted to make you aware of its potential pitfalls. By all means, reach out to the Osage. They are just one (albeit the most vocal) of many tribes that claim cultural patrimony in the area. The landscape is very diverse. If done with Native groups leading the way, it could be a wonderful project. The Osage tribal historic preservation officer is Dr. Andrea Hunter last time I checked. Good luck. It might be good to offer help with their goal of turning an actual existing mound (Sugarloaf) into an interpretive center as well.

  • Presbyterian

    A lot of the famous monuments we travel to see are actually modern replicas of buildings once destroyed. Only 88 of 500 buildings in colonial Williamsburg are original. Many of the great cities of Europe have been leveled multiple times. That beautiful baroque cathedral might have been constructed by a communist government in the 1950s. For us, though, documentation of the original would give the project some added legitimacy.

  • John R

    An aside, but I’ve always favored naming the New Mississippi River Bridge the “Mounds Heritage Bridge” and doing something respectful and special with the substantial East Saint Louis Mounds group, which is in the flight path of the new bridge (and which we’re learning a lot more about b/c of the required archeological digs). And the Saint Louis leg of the bridge is footed at Big Mound. I believe MODOT will have a bit more recognition than the current marker. If we could have had just two pieces of St. Louis’ pre-American history still around, I’d definitely vote for Big Mound for one spot and probably Fort San Carlos for the other. Both tell fascinating stories.

  • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

    Aren’t those people just lounging on a golf course berm? Without context, that’s what it looks like…

    • Alex Ihnen

      Hey, you could Google “The Earthen Dove Effigy Mound”. :) Here’s the website: http://www.thehighground.org/tributes/dove/

      It provides excellent context – I’ll add it to the post.

      • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

        Thanks. Interesting info.

        Re: The Earthen Dove Effigy Mound: “It is a spiritual place where you can go and let your mother, the Earth, hold you. Let the children play on it. Dance on it. Use it to unload your grief and pain, to renew and strengthen you. Lay back in the soft fold of its wings and let Mother Earth unburden you. Then get up and leave your troubles and cares there on the mound, as you walk, away, renewed and refreshed.”