Cahokia National Park

Why isn't Cahokia a National Park? I'm sure there are reasons, but let me say up front that I don't think that any of them are good reasons. I have visited Cahokia twice since moving to St. Louis in January 2005. I was shocked that I-55/70 runs so close to Monks Mound, the largest at Cahokia. The din of traffic and view of billboards is not what I had expected.

The past couple years have brought renewed attention to Cahokia. Timothy Pauketat's "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi" garnered national attention and Pauketat was featured on National Public Radio's On Point (click link to listen to that show). Now, Cahokia is featured in National Geographic Magazine. American's Forgotten City turns the spotlight on the ancient city and its decided neglect and anonymity.

{looking north to Monks Mound – photo by Ira Block}

Some people aren't impressed by Cahokia, but the cultural significance in what is now the United States in unparalleled. Yes, even compared to Grant's Farm, which is being considered as a National Park, a prospect that has received substantial local support. I would hope that we, as a society, could recognize the significance of history without requiring that the mounds be built of limestone instead of earth, or that we receive two free beers after bottle feeding goats.

That Cahokia fails to fit the image of what some see as an ancient civilization worth celebrating and preserving provides perhaps the best reason for just that. The site is centered in a region of 2.8M people in the central U.S. It's not remote and you don't have to scale a cliff or ride a donkey to get there. It's accessible. Cahokia has incredible potential to provide an immense amount of information about America before Europeans arrived. It is estimated that 1% of Cahokia has been excavated.

To be clear, in stating that Cahokia should be a National Park, I mean that Cahokia should be further excavated, explored, studied and interpreted. The noise from I-55/70 should be mitigated. If Richmond Heights can get sound walls, perhaps Cahokia can too. Billboards should not be viewable from the park. Collinsville Road should be moved. Outlying sites should be recognized and preserved. National Park status is the only way that some or all of these could occur.

{that's not Cahokia on the horizon, that's a landfill that dwarfs the nearby ancient city}

{this is the view of Cahokia from I-70 – on the left}

{aerial view of Monks Mounds, Collinsville Road and I-70 – photo by Ira Block}

The State of Illinois has closed state parks in the past to close budget gaps and clearly does not have the resources to do much more with Cahokia. The UNESCO World Heritage Site designation is great, but doesn't provide a binding mandate for further exploration or preservation. Looting of Native American artifacts is an enormous problem in Missouri and Illinois. A March 2010 article in the Riverfront Times details just one small episode. Cahokia and surrounding sites desperately need additional protection. If one site in the St. Louis region is deserving of expansion and protection, it's Cahokia. Let's hope it becomes a National Park.