Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ancient Mound Destruction

City leaders in Oxford, Ala. have approved the destruction of a 1,500-year-old Native American ceremonial mound and are using the dirt as fill for a new Sam's Club, a retail warehouse store operated by Wal-Mart.

This is proof that ignorance and racism against Native Americans persists to this day. This story represents the continuation of a 500-year-old Eurocentric racist idealism that basically says that nothing created by the American Indians is worth saving or even acknowledging. It's the continuation of an ethnocentric Euro-American attitude that says American history only began in 1492. Never mind the fact that American Indians had established civilizations on our continent thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans on its shores.

Part of the reason for this historical denial is the Western propensity to think that if a language and culture weren't written down then it certainly never achieved any level of 'civilization,' that such 'preliterate' people were mere nomads wandering through an 'unspoiled wilderness' chasing bison and gathering plants, nuts, and berries. But let's set the record straight: oral tradition is thought to be much more accurate than written tradition, less subject to manipulation and deception. And oral tradition forces feats of memorization and the learning of complex mnemonic devices the likes of which we, in our modern 'porta-brain' society of laptops and Blackberries, can scarcely hope to appreciate or imitate.
Added to this of course was the U.S. government's policy of genocide and forced assimilation of American indigenous peoples, a policy which necessitated the spread of propaganda declaring Native Americans vastly inferior to 'civilized' Europeans. It is this propaganda of Manifest Destiny which still persists to this day.
This story reminds us that indeed there continues blatant disrespect for the nations that came before us on this continent. The Mississippian civilization, traditionally dated from ca. 950 A.D. to ca. 1550 A.D., constructed thousands of pyramidal mounds along the Mississippi River from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico and all across the southeastern U.S. Many of these flat-top mounds contained civic or religious buildings on their summits, or the houses of the highest-ranking elites.  (Mississippian civilization is noted for being highly socially stratified, like Mesoamerican societies, with sharp class divisions.  These were highly aristocratic agrarian societies, not more egalitarian hunter-gatherers.)  Nobody now knows how many Mississippian mound cities or towns there actually were, since, in the nineteenth century, the soil of many unoccupied mounds was used for rail bed ballast (Kehoe 2002: 170) during the construction of the nation’s railroad system. Mounds were dismantled and built over with impunity, even though one large one, destroyed in 1869 for rail ballast and upon which modern St. Louis was built, “contained a tomb chamber described as having a ceiling of logs and plastered walls and floor,” many bodies lying in rows, “torsos covered with thousands of shell beads ... conch shell spine pendants, marine shell beads, ... and a pair of small copper masks (pendants)...” (ibid.: 173-74). Another large mound in Spiro, Oklahoma, was so filled with artistic riches, including thousands of pearl beads, blankets, conch shell gorgets, effigy pipes, repoussé copper plates, figurines, earspools, and copper hairpins (La Vere 2007), that the Kansas City Star named it a “King Tut Tomb” in North America. The second largest mound at Cahokia, Illinois, the largest Native American city-state north of Mexico, larger than the city of London at the time and built while Europe was entering the Dark Ages, was destroyed as late as 1930 (Pauketat 2004: 17).
(The first largest mound, Monks Mound, which was larger in size than the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt, has largely been preserved as a national monument in what is currently East St. Louis.)

Unfortunately, this story is proof that old habits and ways of thinking die hard, and history repeats itself, again.

Click here for the original article.


Kehoe, Alice. 1998. The land of prehistory: a critical history of American archaeology. New York: Routledge.
La Vere, David. 2007. Looting Spiro mounds: an American King Tut's tomb. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Pauketat, Timothy. 2004. Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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