Osage Heritage Sites Visit a Success
March 27, 2013

Over two dozen members of the Osage Nation travelled to St. Louis, Missouri and surrounding areas during the 2nd Annual Osage Heritage Sites Visit from March 18th through March 22nd, 2013. The Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office contends, using numerous lines of evidence, e.g. linguistic, oral tradition, and archaeological, that the ancestors of the Osage people, along with three of their cognate tribes, lived in the vicinity of St. Louis during the construction of the mounds at Mound City (St. Louis) and Cahokia. This year’s Osage Heritage Sites Visit presented the Osage attendants with an opportunity to decide for themselves, based upon the available information, if their ancestors built one of the most significant cities in history.

Twenty-five members of the Osage Nation signed up, on a first-come, first-served basis, for the trip to St. Louis to view mound sites in St. Louis and at Cahokia and to visit a prominent petroglyph (rock art) site approximately one hour south of St. Louis. Several experts in the fields of historic preservation; archaeology in general and the Mississippian tradition specifically; and prehistoric petroglyphs and pictographs provided the attending Osages with information related to the archaeological sites and known petroglyphs and pictographs of the region with an eye towards past (and present) destruction and preservation of these sites in the vicinity of St. Louis, Missouri.

The Osage Heritage Sites Visit began with a visit to the Illinois Department of Transportation regional office in Collinsville, Illinois to receive a report and presentation on the mitigation efforts required for the construction of the New Mississippi River Bridge crossing the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri and East St. Louis, Illinois. The group then travelled to the site of those mitigation efforts in East St. Louis. Though construction of the bridge is nearing completion, the Osage Nation will continue its relationship with the Illinois Department of Transportation on other projects that may affect the cultural, historic, and religious sites of significance for the Osage people.

That afternoon, the Osages visited the site of Big Mound, presently crossed by the New Mississippi Bridge in northern St. Louis and the site of Sugarloaf Mound in southern St. Louis. Though Big Mound is now gone, the site remains a testament to the destructive effects of contemporary development on the physical manifestations of the history and culture of a people. Though many mounds at Cahokia have also been destroyed, their footprints remain part of the protected Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, carefully maintained by the state of Illinois. Perhaps it was fitting that the Federal Highway Administration insisted on citing their bridge on the former location of Big Mound; a colossus, made of concrete and steel, now spans the site of what was once the largest mound in Mound City, a group of mounds located on the bluffs overlooking Cahokia to the east. The history of transportation and the history of Euro-American disregard for the history and culture of the original inhabitants of this country are intertwined at the site of Big Mound. First the mound was partially damaged by the excavation of what would later become Broadway street. Then the mound was destroyed, slowly carted away for use as fill by local railroad companies in the early years of St. Louis. Its human-made nature and antiquity was in little doubt as beads and bones spilled from the site causing some distress, though eliciting no action, amongst those documenting the mounds of Cahokia six miles away. Then the site was occupied by a carriage factory, its basement full of furnaces and anvils upon which wagon wheels were shaped. The site served as home to a junk yard after that, containing the crushed, leaking, and forgotten cars of yesterday. Finally, the site is now home to two broad swathes of concrete that will carry traffic along Interstate 70. The current bridge will certainly not be alone for long as, most assuredly, in the next few decades additional lanes will appear alongside of it, completely covering the site with concrete and interstate traffic. A single boulder with a new plaque (the old one was stolen years ago for scrap metal) lies mute and immobile across the street from the site of Big Mound. The group spent very little time there because, as Dr. John Kelly said, “There isn’t much to see.” The heartless total destruction of a sacred site and placement of the bridge landing was also terribly distressing to many in the group.

A much more positive experience awaited the group at Sugarloaf Mound. The mound, purchased by the Osage Nation in 2009, will be preserved, protected, and interpreted by the Osage Nation in a collaborative manner using the Sugarloaf Mound Preservation Plan, a document drafted by local historic preservation specialists, archaeologists, and the Osage Nation, as guidance. We are looking forward to taking the next step in the plan and sincerely appreciate the excellent support by those in the local community.

That evening the group was hosted by the American Indian Student Association and Buder Center for American Indian Studies at Washington University, St. Louis. The gracious student organization and the Osage attendants introduced themselves and spent the evening in lively discussion.

The next day was spent travelling to and enjoying, despite the brutal winds and cold, Washington State Park near De Soto, Missouri. Carol Diaz-Granados and Jim Duncan guided the tour of the petroglyphs at the park and spent the afternoon presenting on the petroglyphs and pictographs of the region. Special attention was paid to the connections between known Osage iconography and the petroglyphs and pictographs seen in the region, the known presence of the Osages on the landscape through history, and some of the beliefs and traditions of the Osage.

The last day was spent at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois. All participated in viewing the model of Cahokia and highlighted features available, as explained by Dr. Bill Iseminger of the park. Dr. Iseminger was also available for questions while the group toured the excellent museum. Following lunch, the group returned to the park to scale the magnificent Monks Mound, visit the Woodhenge, and to make the short trek to Mound 72. The visit to Mound 72 was guided by John Kelly of Washington University, St. Louis and was particularly interesting, though disturbing. It is very difficult to hear of the excavation and removal of those who have been laid to rest. The Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office strongly encourages anyone interested in this magnificent site to visit it and donate towards its cause. The state of Illinois has been hit especially hard by the recent recession and those effects are being felt acutely at the park.

Our sincere gratitude is due to the many people who assisted with this highly successful event:

The managing officers and staff members of the Illinois Department of Transportation, specifically Brad Koldehoff and Jan Piland;

Local preservation proponents and inexhaustible volunteers Kathy Waltz and Tim Ogle;

Dr. John Kelly, of Washington State University, for his insight and assistance;

The students of the American Indian Student Association and Buder Center for American Indian Studies at Washington University in St. Louis for their wonderful hospitality;

Dr. Carol Diaz-Granados and Jim Duncan for their willingness to share their excellent work; and

Dr. Bill Iseminger, and his fellow staff members at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, for their hospitality and assistance in the description and interpretation of the site.

We also sincerely appreciate the excellent service and hospitality shown to us by the staff at our hotel and the many fine restaurants that served us and, in their way, made this trip a success. Finally, we owe a great deal of gratitude to our bus driver, Doug, whose excellent skills, patience, and overall attitude made it possible for us to safely arrive at and, more importantly, return from, our destinations.

We were also very happy to have an employee of the Osage News with us for the duration of the trip to St. Louis and are looking forward to seeing his article. We encourage others to visit the Osage News to learn more about this wonderful trip as well as other news items affecting the Osage and Indian Country in general. Thank you, Benny, for coming and thank you, Shannon, for supporting his coverage of the trip!

We look forward to continuing the annual Osage Heritage Sites Visit and hope that those Osages who are interested will continue to check our website for updates on the next one! The Osage Heritage Sites Visit was approved by the Principal Chief using funds appropriated by the Osage Nation Congress. The Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office asks that if this program and others like it, serves your needs as an Osage in focusing on and nurturing the culture and history of the Osage people, you should contact Executive and Congress and voice your opinion.

Please visit the Photos section of our website for photos of this year’s Osage Heritage Sites Visit.