By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
A local conservancy group is getting considerable backing in an effort to protect and elevate the status of ancient mound sites in and around Metro East, but it remains to be seen if the campaign can get over the hump before President Obama’s term ends.
The HeartLands Conservancy, based in Mascoutah, has been working the last four years to promote the status of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and to add protections for some of the 580 mounds sites located throughout the St. Louis region.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, officially gave the idea his stamp of approval in a letter to the president on April 28. Specifically he asked the president to designate the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site as a National Monument. Cahokia and other significant mounds would collectively be a unit of the National Park Service.
Durbin, in December 2014, requested the National Park Service undertake a survey on the suitability of Cahokia Mounds as a unit of the National Park Service. That survey is not yet complete.
Such a move, supporters say, would bolster the viability of Cahokia Mounds and further promote the region as one of the best examples of ancient culture in the United States.
“At over 4,000 acres, Cahokia Mounds was the central hub of the large Mississippian Culture that ruled and traded over half of North America, more than 1.25 million square miles,” Durbin’s letter to the president says. “This area was the first known organized urbanization and government north of Mexico that also used mass production agriculture and commerce. Some of the mounds built between AD 900-1400 still stand as earthen monuments and remnants of Mississippian Culture — North America’s greatest prehistoric ancient culture and ancestors to many of today’s great Indian nations.”
The concern is that modern-day development threatens the existence of mounds that are not under protected status.
“The current National Historic Landmark designation affords some limited protection around Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site proper, and the Illinois Burial Act has provided some protection. But, many other mound sites — privately and publicly owned — are threatened as new roads are built and development further encroaches on the remaining cultural resources of the region,” Durbin’s letter says.
For more than 26 year, the nonprofit HeartLands has been recognized for its work on natural resources and community quality of life issues. It works closely with many related groups.
HeartLands collaborated with Illinois and Missouri state agencies, the federal government, and local communities to compile data for “The Mounds America’s First Cities: A Feasibility Study.” HeartLands also relied on guidance of Native American Tribes and Nations to assemble a multidisciplinary project team and advisory committee.
The study goes into tremendous detail citing Cahokia Mounds as the premier example of the Mississippian Culture. Cahokia has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark, an Illinois State Historic Site, and a United Nations World Heritage Site.
The study also addresses the links among non-contiguous mound sites and the wisdom of bringing them in under the same protected umbrella.
Many of the 580 other mounds are on private land, according to Ed Weilbacher and Laura Lyon, who are respectively the vice president for Building Greener Communities and the special projects coordinator for HeartLands. In total the mounds represent the last vestiges of the indigenous people and landscapes that made up one of America’s first cities in the Western Hemisphere.
“To be a national landmark it must be special but it could be one of dozens. To become a unit of the Park Service, it has to be the best example of that type of thing in the entire country,” Lyon said. “We believe it to be the best example of the Mississippian Culture and earthen mounds in the country.”
Weilbacher added: “On par with the pyramids of Egypt, or the ruins of Mexico, that significant.”
HeartLands Conservancy became heavily involved in the need to save mound sites in 2012 during the construction of the approach to the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge when workers began uncovering centuries old relics beneath the former stockyards. It was virtually an entire village.
“At that site, believe it or not, they even uncovered — two feet below the surface — thatched floors and thatched huts that were preserved because there was a fire that came through there and charred the remains. You can still see the woven pattern of the thatching that took place. It was remarkable what was there and this was all under the old National Stockyards,” Weilbacher said.
Some one million artifacts are being stored at a state repository in Wood River until there are budgetary resources to do something with them, he said.
HeartLands was approached to do a study by the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Illinois Archaeological Survey. The study concluded that mounds like those at the stockyards could be saved, but only if there was enough land around the sites set aside to preserve them.
Cahokian society began as early as the 8th century and lasted until the 14th century. The population has been estimated at 10,000 to 20,000 people. In 1215, Cahokia’s population was said to larger than London’s. Its population was larger than any North American settlement until Philadelphia passed it in the 1800s.
Discussion about turning Cahokia Mounds into a national park has gone on for decades. In its feasibility study HeartLands concludes the state and the National Park Service should co-manage the collection of mounds.
Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville would be the main site. Six other significant sites are in St. Louis, East St. Louis, Fairmont City, Mitchell, Dupo and Lebanon.
“A lot of people don’t understand the archaeology of this region is not just Cahokia Mounds, but all these culturally connected centers within the region. There is a whole story about the Mississippians that no one knows,” Weilbacher said.
Much research, travel and funds were necessary to study the feasibility question.
“You just can’t call up someone and say we want a national park,” Weilbacher said. “There are certain specific and rigid criteria established by the National Park Service for any unit of the Park Service to be named. Part of our feasibility study took that approach, looking at the minimum criteria to elevate something to either a national park or a national monument. I think we did a very good job of writing out the foundation, the qualities of the various sites within the region — including Missouri — saying there was a village, a community here in Southwestern Illinois that centered on Cahokia Mounds but also touched in other communities. They worked together as city-state kind of governance. It was the first time in this continent that we had a structure of governance in an organized fashion. Before that it was hunter/gatherers.”
A map was created showing 580 mounds on grounds both public and private in the St. Louis region. They are located from Chesterfield Valley to Pere Marquette Park to Lebanon to Columbia/Dupo. Some are intact, some are not.
Each of the satellite communities focused on a certain kind of expertise or trade.
“What they are finding in each site is different. They are finding more agricultural tools down in the Dupo area, where it would have been more agrarian and a food supply chain up to Cahokia. The East St. Louis site and Fairmont City tend to be where they find more effigies and tools — the artistic elements and spiritual relics. They believe that was a religious art center,” said Lyon.
“Up the river, you find more hunting and utilitarian items. These are the settlers of Cahokia, the capital of all this,” she said. “They were connected through the back waters of the Mississippi and trails. All this working together turns into the Mississippian culture vs. just the Cahokia Mounds site,” she said.
Many public meetings were held on the national-elevation effort, and many attendees mistakenly thought Cahokia Mounds already was a national park because of its World Heritage Site status.
A World Heritage Site is a place listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as being of special cultural or physical significance. A World Heritage Site is a status symbol, but more in terms of marketing, Weilbacher said.
“A lot of people value the national parks of our country, they want to go to them,” he said. “They are of a quality, of a resource, of a condition — the best of the best. People know they are going to go to something good when they go to one of those units.”
Realistically the national monument designation would mean an increased tax base and jobs not just for this market but for the state, Lyon said.
It would also mean more visitors for Cahokia Mounds. As recently as 1989, the site claimed 500,000 visitors. By 2015 that number had dropped to 280,000.
Stable visitorship also means a stable budget, for which they could plan and keep up maintenance and management. Development Strategies, a St. Louis-based consulting firm, has estimated that a 10 percent increase in visitors would add $2 million to the $12.2 million that the Cahokia Mounds site generates for the economy each year.
“They could also increase their footprint,” Lyon said. “Right now they have a national landmark boundary of which they are allowed to, with willing sellers, acquire other significant sites within that boundary. Right now they have a not-for-profit group, the Cahokia Mounds museum society, that raises funds in order to do that. By increasing the visitorship, it allows them to have more of a capital budget.”
Elevating Cahokia Mounds to a National Park unit would place it on a national stage with 400 elite sites.
“You become part of the marketing, part of the passport program linked to the other sites, part of the national story,” Lyon said.
“It’s quite an acknowledgement to the indigenous cultures that come from there,” she said.
The HeartLands duo stressed that the goal is a collaborative model, a newer version of parks than it once was.
“In the past we had these large expanses of national park ownership of land. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about a model that’s a partnership between the state of Illinois and National Park Service,” Weilbacher said.
“And the communities, not-for-profits and the tribes,” Lyon added.
The state would retain ownership of their property, but by declaring it a National Monument it brings technical assistance and resources from the National Park Service over to that site.
Co-branding of the sites would get people coming both to Cahokia Mounds and the other communities. There could be many means of connecting the dots, from a virtual tour taken at the Cahokia Mounds center to creating an interpretive path that would feature such things as roadside signs or trailside sites. A lot depends on willingness of private landowners to sell their property.
“We’re not talking about large expanses of land that would be taken out of development,” Weilbacher said. “These would be selected areas, often smaller footprints that can be enjoyed in a number of ways by developing around them. These five sites we’re talking about are so significant and so concentrated and so well documented that these sites are the ones that we’d like to see moved over to the public domain first.”
One of them is actually in St. Louis — the last remaining mound in the city, called Sugar Loaf Mound.
“The Osage Nation tribe in Oklahoma bought that mound several years ago and wants to see it eventually opened to the public,” he said.
Many communities, St. Clair and Madison counties, the state legislature and the past governor of Illinois have issued resolutions or letters of support for the concept.
“People say, ‘What’s the negative?’ At the public meetings, it was like why haven’t we done it sooner? We had over 1,000 comment cards and 800 surveys, and support from 13 tribes,” he said.
To gain National Monument status under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the president must issue a proclamation. He has issued such orders over a dozen times during his tenure.
“Most presidents wait until the last month or two (of their term), so we are working toward that,” Lyon said.
Obama issued a similar order for monument status for the Pullman Historic Site in Chicago in February 2015. It, too is intended as a partnership between the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the National Park Services.
Supporters believe the effort will be achieved under Obama because of his Illinois connection. If not, the process would have to start again with a successor administration.