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Push is underway to make Cahokia Mounds, other local Indian sites part of the National Park Service

Push is underway to make Cahokia Mounds, other local Indian sites part of the National Park Service

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Ancient Greece had its Parthenon, Egypt its Pyramids and St. Louis its Cahokia Mounds and more than 550 other Mississippian mounds that experts say are of comparable importance to North American ancient civilization.

Now, an effort is gaining strength to urge Congress to designate Cahokia Mounds and the similar sites in the St. Louis area a part of the National Park Service as a national historical park or to get the president to designate Cahokia Mounds a national monument. Either designation, proponents say, would give the ancient Native American mounds more protection, more status and more tourism. A network of connected trails could link the mounds and sites in Illinois, where most are located, and Missouri, proponents say.

“The current plan includes creating a national historical park not only for Cahokia but for the significant mound centers of the Mississippians throughout the bistate region,” said Bill Iseminger, an archaeologist who is assistant director of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. This, said Iseminger, who is sometimes called “Mr. Mounds,” would “enable us to protect a lot more of it.”

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn endorsed the idea last month, and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has asked the Park Service to review the proposal. Under the plan, the state of Illinois would retain ownership and operation of the 2,200-acre Cahokia Mounds, which was the site of the largest Pre-Columbian city north of Mexico.

“The time is now to protect these resources,” says a new report by the private regional not-for-profit HeartLands Conservancy, the group leading the effort.

Adding urgency is a remarkable recent find, some of which could be endangered, said Ed Weilbacher, who heads special projects for the HeartLands Conservancy.

Before and during construction of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, archaeologists uncovered more than 1,500 ancient Indian homes — estimated to have housed 5,000 people over the years — in and around the former St. Louis National Stockyards in the Metro East. But that’s only a tiny fraction of what archaeologists and others expect could be uncovered on adjacent land, next to East St. Louis.

The artifacts found during the bridge construction are being cataloged and researched by the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois. Other finds include storage pits, refuse pits, food-processing areas, sweat lodges and other aspects of the culture.

All were part of a Mississippian civilization that flourished from 1000 A.D. to 1350 A.D. The mounds were part of what at the time was the largest Native American city on the continent, a place where Native Americans made pilgrimages for special spiritual rituals linked to the origin of the cosmos.

Around 1100 A.D., the population of at least 20,000 was larger than that of London.

The proposal and justification for National Park Service status is contained in the study — “The Mounds — America’s First Cities” — released March 19 by the HeartLands Conservancy.

A large multidisciplinary team worked on the study with guidance from 11 American Indian tribes and nations. Over the last 18 months, state and federal agencies, local communities and experts all helped with the study and sought input from the public. The last public workshop was March 19.

The group looked at Mississippian mounds from Columbia, Ill., north to Pere Marquette State Park, through the city of St. Louis, and from Lebanon, west to Chesterfield.

“Some of the people at the public meetings told us about more mounds that archaeologists didn’t know about,” Weilbacher said.

Many of the mounds are at ground level now, or underneath urban development; however, other mounds are still intact and of high quality, according to Weilbacher and Iseminger.

One of the most well-known mounds in St. Louis was Big Mound, 319 feet long and 34 feet high, at Broadway and Mound Street. Along with many of the St. Louis mounds, it disappeared in the 1860s and 1870s, Iseminger said. The dirt from the mounds was used to fill in low and wet areas and for building railroads, businesses and homes in St. Louis, East St. Louis and other areas.

One mound, Sugar Loaf west, remains on Ohio Avenue at Broadway in south St. Louis. A house is built on top. The site is owned by the Osage Tribe.

The current state historic site designation protects Cahokia Mounds’ 2,200 acres but not the additional 1,500 acres around it that also are part of the prehistoric site, the study says. The national historic landmark boundaries include all this area but only provides limited protection. The Illinois Burial Act also provides some protection.

Many sites — private or publicly owned – “are threatened as new roads are built and development further encroaches on the remaining cultural resources of the region,” the study says.

“The preservation of the greater mounds community — the Mississippian mounds — are a national responsibility,” it says.

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Margaret S. Gillerman is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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