Giving Lip Service to Preservation

22 Apr

by Melissa Burns-

Living in Southwestern Illinois, you find Cahokia Mounds almost in your backyard. Growing up, I, like everyone else, took the requisite school field trips and learned about the people who once lived there. I was fascinated by its size and scope and how it once rivaled  cities like London, Paris, or Mexico City in its influence. Now, working in the tourism industry, I give directions and encourage people to go see the mounds. I sometimes wonder, though, how much we really think about Cahokia Mounds or work to preserve them.

Monk's Mound

Monk's Mound

The first thing that always stands out to me when I visit Cahokia Mounds is not the number of mounds or the impressive height of Monk’s Mound, but the billboards that have been placed right in the heart of the site and the highway that cuts it in half. I am always amazed that such a wonderfully historic place as Cahokia Mounds has been so recklessly treated. Of course, one could make the argument that the mounds are available to everyone at no charge, and some trade-offs are therefore to be expected. After all, commerce and expansion do have a way of making themselves known in even the least likely of places. But even this open availability has become limited recently. With the budget crisis that the state of Illinois is in, the hours and days that the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center is open to the public has been drastically cut for the majority of the year.  The question I have to ask, then, is are we truly trying to preserve Cahokia Mounds and, if we are, what is going wrong with that attempt?

Big Mound

Artist's sketch of Big Mound in St. Louis, shortly before it was demolished

Not long ago, I read an article in National Geographic titled “America’s Forgotten City.”  Written by former magazine staffer Glenn Hodges, who had only recently learned of the mounds existence, the story gave me a new perspective on something that we take largely for granted. Hodges’ opinion was that, as a site of Native American history, Cahokia Mounds has fallen victim to the long tradition of American disdain and ambivalence toward Indian culture.  According to this theory, the mounds’ historical significance went against the prevailing eighteenth and nineteenth-century opinion that Native Americans were savage peoples who were incapable of living a “modern” or “civilized” existence. An Indian city was simply too much for Americans to comprehend. As such, farmers in Illinois and city planners in Missouri demolished the mounds with careless abandon, finding them either a nuisance in the middle of a cornfield or more valuable as fill dirt in the city.  This is an intriguing hypothesis, and, while I am not sure if I am totally sold that this is the exact answer, I do think that it provides some interesting insight.

Loaf Mound

Loaf Mound, St. Louis's final standing mound

When it comes to Cahokia Mounds, or any historical site, what preservation ultimately comes down to is personal involvement. Local or national politics will always have an agenda, one which usually runs counter to the best interests of history in favor of more immediate financial goals.  It is up to us to actively engage with history and show its importance, whether you are the teacher who leads the fieldtrip, the hotel clerk who gives suggestions to tourists, or, as featured in the National Geographic article, a local man who takes it upon himself to care for and maintain a neighborhood historical marker.

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One Response to “Giving Lip Service to Preservation”

  1. Becky Johnston April 26, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    Though I haven’t read the article in which you speak, I do know that the first written account of Cahokia Mounds, published in 1811 by Henry Brackenridge, called for the preservation of the Mounds. By then, the Cahokia -for which the mounds are named though they did not build them- had left the area and the Trappist Monks (for which Monks Mound is named though they didn’t live on that mound) resided there. Because the Cahokias had no first hand knowledge of who built the mounds combined with the egocentric misconception that Native population did not have the skills to construct such “stupendous piles of earth”(quoted from Brackenridge’s account), and the lack of Indigenous history because of decimated populations due to Virgin Soil Epidemics (entire cultures wiped out from European diseases to which they had no immunity), many people believed the mounds had to have been naurtal occurances in the area from the rivers and waters flooding and receding. Even a government sactioned geological survey during the mid 1800s declared they were not man-made. Based on this thinking, people thought there was no history to preserve. It wasn’t until the late 1800s with the creation of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Mound Exploration that it finally became offical knowledge that the mounds were man-made AND built by Native Americans and not some long-lost European civilization. When the Big Mound in St. Louis was razed, because of its size and close proximity to Monks Mound, they were confused in articles causing people to believe they were gone and preservation efforts failed. Another influence was that they area was sparsely populated for much of this period and their status for preseravtion unknown. I came across articles published shortly after the World’s Fair in St. Louis that stated the mound preservation was ignored because the World’s Fair got in the way. Still, through out this time, there was a segment of the population that called for mound preservation and in the 1920s, the Cahokia Mound Park was established. By then, the grounds that encompassed the Cahokia Mounds were owned by various families who had done what they wanted with the mounds -in the name of civilized progress. Slowly, the State Park bought up the surrounding land to preserve the Mounds. Much of the excavations in this area came from mitigation projects because of proposed highway construction such as the FAI-270 project, or site contruction for the park itself. (Can you tell I did my undergrad thesis on this :0)

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