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The Lost City of Cahokia

Ancient Tribes of the Mississippi Brought to Life

By Emmett Berg | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

The city of Cahokia, in modern-day Illinois, had a population of twenty thousand at its pinnacle in the 1300s. With pyramids, mounds, and several large ceremonial areas, Cahokia was the hub of a way of life for millions of Native Americans before the society's decline and devastation by foreign diseases.

Representatives from eleven tribes are working alongside archaeologists and anthropologists to assist the Art Institute of Chicago in developing an exhibition that explores artistic and cultural themes of a major branch of pre-Columbian civilization--the direct ancestors of most American Indians today. "Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South," opening November 20, comprises more than three hundred works. It's one of the largest showings of artifacts, design, and architecture dating from the rise and decline of Mississippian civilizations in the Midwest and the South between 2000 B.C.E and 1600 C.E.

"This particular exhibition has the potential to be the most important exhibition ever on Native American Indians. It could change the popular conception of what Native Americans were like," says Garrick Bailey, a Tulsa University professor of cultural anthropology who is part white, part Choctaw, and part Cherokee.

"One of the strongest images in American society, even today, is that of the American Indian," he says. "It seems to range only from red devil to noble savage--both a simple child of nature. It's very pervasive. It's had a tremendous impact on how white America sees Indians and increasingly how younger American Indians see themselves. Trying to address that issue is the most important one."

Tribal members will serve as docents for the exhibition. Mural-sized reconstruction drawings will evoke the panorama and complexity of ancient settlements found in present day Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, along the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, and elsewhere in the South. The murals are meant to reinforce the shared themes and worldview of ancient America implicit in the artifacts, although there are regional distinctions and variation.

The objects on display include ceremonial pipes sculptured in animal and human forms, conch shells engraved with ritualistic scenes, copper repoussé plates of rulers in full regalia, masks of shell and wood, embellished ceramic vessels and figural forms, finely worked stone implements, mica figures, and jewelry. Many of the works come from private collections and have never before been viewed widely.

Hero, hawk, and open hand refer to three recurrent motifs in native mythology regarding life, death, and renewal. Pipe effigies and fertility figures depict heroes, or legendary figures--often ancestors or mythical sources of life--who were also supernatural protectors and models for human leaders. Figures such as the hawk were connected with forces in nature and were believed to be linked to humans; dreams and ritual offerings made by shamans, hunters, and rulers maintained the cycles of society. The open hand is a sign in the Native American constellation associated with the passage of the soul from the realm of the living to that of the dead. Such cosmological forces were invoked by rituals and by aligning ceremonial sites to the paths of the sun or moon and the movements of constellations.

The exhibition begins with a map of the eastern U.S. stripped of all detail except place names descended from Native American languages--a riposte to the American concept of "manifest destiny": the idea that America was a wilderness until Europeans arrived, and that native peoples were ill-equipped to forge a civilization of their own.

"Names of hundreds of places and geographical features, signs pointing to scattered archaeological sites, and many routes of overland travel testify to that fact that there never really was an untamed wilderness here--or at least not since the time of the mastodon and saber-tooth cat," writes Richard Townsend, the Institute's curator for Amerindian art, in his introduction to the exhibition catalog. "Many highways are also superimposed on roads traveled since early colonial times, which in turn followed centuries-old Indian trails . . . and the paths of seasonal animal migrations."

Retracing the steps of a culture from which so much has been washed away can be baffling. Bailey recounts a 1910 encounter between the Omaha anthropologist Francis La Flesche and the Osage priest Saucy Calf. For four days Saucy Calf performed ceremonial rites consisting of ninety songs, six long ritual prayers, and seven symbolic ritual acts called we'-ga-xe. Saucy Calf used a notched tally stick on which each notch represented a song--a finger holding his place as a memory aid. As La Flesche recorded Saucy Calf, he noticed that the priest would sometimes skip notches without singing a song, and asked why he did so.

"Saucy Calf replied that he should not concern himself about those songs, for the ones he had forgotten were of ’no particular importance,'" Bailey writes.

Though there are many skipped notches, the archaeological record is more complete: it begins with hunting and gathering peoples of the late Pleistocene epoch during the last phases of the Ice Age. They hunted mammoths and bison as well as deer, and collected fruits and plants in season. Their stone axe heads and other objects show a high level of symbolic activity, Townsend says. The largest known settlement, located on the banks of the river Bayou Maçon in northeastern Louisiana, was anchored by a fifty-foot-high ceremonial mound aligned to the sun's path.

Around 500 B.C.E. central Ohio became a beehive of new cultural activity. The Adena people built conical mounds to commemorate tribal leaders, and their practices were expanded by the Hopewell culture, which existed between the years 1 and 400 C.E. The Newark Earthworks is perhaps the best known. The site encompassed four square miles and included two giant circles, an ellipse, a square, and an octagon, all connected by parallel walls. Bradley T. Lepper writes in an essay included in the exhibition catalog, "Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis, among the foremost of the early students of American archaeology, declared in 1848 that the works occupying this 'remarkable plain' were so complicated that it was 'impossible to give anything like a comprehensive description of them'."

The Hopewell people had by this time expanded their artistic repertoire to specialized, supernatural figures such as the long-nosed god, the birdman, and the old-woman-who-never-dies. They employed exotic materials such as shell from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from present-day Michigan, mica from what is now North Carolina, and obsidian from the land that became Wyoming. Artisans painstakingly crafted walls and mounds from layers of clay of different colors, and topped them with sod. As development encroached upon the works, an increasing amount of artifacts were laid bare.

"The earthworks were not just symbols on the landscape, they were built to be part of the landscape; and, perhaps, to allow their builders to transcend the boundaries of the terrestrial sphere," Lepper writes. "In one section, called Observatory Mound, the intricate 18.6-year cycle of the moon can be encompassed by four points on the eastern horizon marking a maximum northern moonrise, a minimum northern moonrise, a maximum and minimum southern moonrise, and four points on the western horizon marking the corresponding moonsets."

The Hopewell people eventually spread westward to the Illinois River Valley and into Tennessee, where the Mississippian period began some time after 800 C.E. Cahokia was built near where the Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois rivers empty into the Mississippi.

As the region's capital, Cahokia was replete with flat-top pyramids, burial mounds, and a vast ceremonial concourse surrounded by commercial and residential areas as well as outlying agriculture zones. A central mound would grow to a height of one hundred feet--the largest mound north of the valley of Mexico. The city housed artisans, political embassies, and was a destination for religious pilgrims. Cahokians were ruled under matrilineal succession and practiced human sacrifice. The death of a leader required the sacrifice of the spouse and at times other family members.

The city's enduring legacy came in the form of highly trained artisans who supplied works to chieftains and elites. Cahokian elites most likely used figurines crafted into pipes, shells inscribed with supernatural characters, stylized copper plates, and other items as a means to disseminate their beliefs to outlying communities, including the ancient chieftaincies at Etowah, Georgia; Spiro, Oklahoma; and Moundville, Alabama. The body of art produced at Cahokia spread far and wide, helping to perpetuate and reinforce the central myths and rituals common to the people at the time.

"The objects in the exhibition belong to the symbolic domain but had utility originally," Townsend says. One such item is a bannerstone, which functioned as a tool for atlatl spear throwers but could take on symbolic value similar to a coat of arms. When intricate figures or designs were carved on bannerstones, perhaps identifying them as props in one of the great myths, they would assume the power of relics. "The objects become very special as part of trappings of secular and religious power." Increased food production led societies as large as Cahokia to thrive for more than two centuries, but according to Townsend, a drought may have set in motion the slow decline that eventually resulted in the abandonment of nearly every large town.

By the time Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto and six hundred Spanish soldiers landed near Tampa Bay in 1539, the world they found was a well-populated system of sociopolitical centers and dependent villages, such as the four-hundred-mile stretch of Tennessee and Alabama that once formed the extended environs of the city known as Coosa. Bailey recalls one of De Soto's chroniclers reporting, "When the expedition reached the banks of the river separating them from town of Cutifachiqui, the woman chief ’. . . came from the town in a carrying chair in which certain principal Indians carried her to the river.'

"At Talomeco [in present day South Carolina] they found a town of five hundred houses, abandoned, its fields choked with weeds," Bailey says. "They were told that a few years earlier the town had been struck by a pestilence, which had killed many of the people, and caused the survivors to flee. Some iron tools found at the deserted town by De Soto men showed that the people had already come in contact with Europeans. Most likely they had met the Spanish settlers at San Miguel de Guadalupe, a coastal settlement founded in 1526 and abandoned the following year."

Contacts that Europeans made with Native Americans in this era set off a wave of catastrophic outbreaks of measles, smallpox, diphtheria, and even the common cold. More than 90 percent of Indian populations perished within a century.

The Indian country most colonists found when they crossed the Appalachians lacked the sophistication of the Cahokia and the mound builders. The natives had cruder tools, and no explanation for the mounds, leading some of the Europeans to believe that another race entirely had been responsible for fantastic artifacts and earth works.

"It would be like if you visited Europe in the Middle Ages, and there were no royalty or nobles--only peasants," Bailey says.

What remains of Cahokia are not only artifacts. Its root language, Dhegiha, has a legacy west of the Mississippi with the Omaha, Ponca, Osage, and Kansa, and perhaps the Chiwere-Winnebago of the Great Lakes region.

Yet a legacy does not ensure survival. Tim Thompson, a medicine man fluent in the Muscogee language, said in an interview for the exhibition that the younger generation has an interest in languages, but as just one of many activities that form the time-honored passing on of sacred knowledge.

"When you're trying to teach a language, regardless of what kind, but especially a Native Indian language, it's hard to hold anybody's interest," Thompson says, "because this kind of language was never a written language to begin with. The language is part of culture, and culture, to me, is something you can't teach-- you've got to live it."

"What's crucial to re.member is that people themselves do survive," Bailey says. "The tribes that the early Anglo Americans found when they came over the Appalachians are the direct descendants of those who built the mounds. They are the same people, and they will go on."

About the Author

Emmett Berg is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

Funding Information

The Art Institute of Chicago has received $300,000 in support from NEH for the traveling exhibition, catalog, and public programs. "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South" opens November 20 and travels to the St. Louis Art Museum in February 2005.

Envisioning Cahokia: A Landscape Perspective, by Rinita A. Dalan, George R. Holley, William I. Woods, Harold W. Watters Jr., and John A. Koepke, analyzes ten years of archaeological work at Cahokia. Research for the book, published in 2003 by Northern Illinois University Press, was supported by an NEH grant of $63,935.