Seeking the people of this land
(Encore issue) Pursuing the elusive story of native people in the St. Louis area
Today is Thanksgiving! The last couple years, I’ve been examining how I celebrate this holiday, which was once my undisputed favorite. I love the food and gathering of family without the complexity of selecting and receiving gifts. But as I’ve examined my role in the world, I’ve had to think through the complexity of a holiday that is based on whitewashed history in more than one way. Part of this reckonking has been learning about the native people who used to live where I do, which is is the subject of this encore issue. I’ll be back with a new essay next week!
Declaring the second Monday of October Indigenous Peoples’ Day won’t right the continued wrongs of our European ancestors. But by taking action, we can begin to account for the damage that has been done. To make amends, we first must understand the history and current lives of the people native to these lands.
A couple years ago, a friend of mine told me about native-land.ca, a website run and built by a Canadian non-profit staffed and overseen by a combination of native and non-native people. Visitors to the site can enter their zip code, and view a map showing the territories of native people who once or still live in that place. The U.S. and Canadian maps appear to be the most complete, but the tool includes territories all over the world.
When I looked up my zip code, the results showed the name of not one, but six native groups. My first reaction was to feel proud that I loved the same land as so many peoples. I already knew about the prehistoric Mississippian people who built an epic city just a 20 minute car drive from my house, and I remembered that the rich soil at the confluence of the local rivers supported their success. So, I assumed that the people who historical lived on this land were drawn here for the same reason.
But with so many groups to research, my pride soon shifted to overwhelm. If I lived on the land of only one native group, I might have simply looked for popular history books about them (and hopefully found one written by a member of their group), and then started by reading it.
With six groups, though, I wasn’t sure where to start. I didn’t want to have to find and process six books before feeling like I had a basic understanding of native history in St. Louis. My motivation included curiosity, sure, but I was impatient to move toward making changes in my life that would bring my awareness and support of native peoples in line with my values.
I needed to find an overview of St. Louis native history, and my Googling skills were not enough to find it.
It took me a couple of years and several times being reminded and looking again at native-land.ca before I went any farther in my search. This summer, I decided to use my existing knowledge of native prehistory as a starting point. Known to me as Cahokia Mounds, the Mississippian city I mentioned above is now an official state historic site complete with a museum and staff. Although their expertise focuses on hundreds of years before the period I want to understand, I hoped they could refer me to where I should look.
And I heard back! The person who responded to my email gave me contact info for two archeologists and a pair of professors. Once I wrote them, I heard back from each of them, too. Thanks to their responses, I have a mental model of where I’m going next. And that mental model includes the realization that I’m not going to get a simple answer anytime soon.
One response talked exclusively about the most well-known group in Missouri: the Osage. Another referred me to a report they’d written for a suburb of St. Louis; I’m excited to look through its 70 pages for the info I seek. And a third response mentioned several different groups—“the Illini tribes known as the Cahokia and Kaskaskia” and the “Algonquian nations from the Great Lakes, such as the Kickapoo”—in a narrative, but then listed “the Osage, Quapaw, and Kaw” at the end of his note as being “debated by archaeologists, historians, and Native American tribes.”
What I’m learning seems to keep introducing new questions even as it answers others.
By reading these emails and part of a book one person recommended, however, I was able to check my earlier guess about why there were so many people who called this area home. Yes, the St. Louis area is a beautiful, rich land, but it was also a place where Europeans had forced native people from the east. An archeological account that I’ve started to read describes how the Spanish got native people from east of St. Louis to move here as a human barrier between Spanish settlements and Osage villages.
In retrospect, I ought to have assumed that this kind of heartlessness would have affected the territories of native people, but that is why this project is important to me. I want to understand what happened, not the half histories and euphemisms I learned in school.
Among all this, I keep imagining what I’ll do once I feel I have a grasp on what happened here. Of course, I’ll share the stories. I also hope to find concrete ways to show my gratitude and recognize the impact of past violence. I am excited to find ways to tend to the land that honor how native people cared for it. And I want to decide a meaningful way to donate to the indigenous nations who once lived at this same confluence of rivers as I do, as a sort of inadequate-but-better-than-nothing rent payment.
I want to be a person who contributes to the remembrance and inclusion of native people in America, this land that they cared for for eons before my people dreamed of it. I can’t undo the damage my ancestors benefited from, but I can start to stop doing it myself.
Mentioned in this issue: native-land.ca, which I highly recommend trying out for yourself; the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site; and Indians and Archaeology of Missouri (1983) by Carl H. and Eleanor F. Chapman.
I’m also sending thanks to my friend Sara Peralta for a well-timed chat with me last week, which inspired me to frame small, regular donations to indigenous nations as rent by telling me about a Canadian organization that facilitates that kind of relationship.