Indians Created First Major Urban Centers

Article excerpt

Though not as well known as their counterparts in Mexico and the American Southwest, the Indians in the ancient Midwest and South thrived for millennia, as their settlements transformed the untamed wilderness (between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 1600) into a complex political and economic network, often linked by waterways, such as the Missisippi River. From Cahokia in southern Illinois to Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana, the mound builders, as they came to be called, created the first major urban centers in North America.

Essential to this highly integrated and interconnected system was the cosmic vision of the universe upon which it was based. Communicated through great works of art and in ceremonial and religious practices, this vision and its societal systems yielded advanced pre-Columbian settlements. Some, such as Cahokia, had populations of 20,000 in 1200. By examining nearly 4,000 years of art and culture identified with the people of these regions, the richness of these civilizations can be brought to light.

The exhibition "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South" delves into the context in which the powerful art of the ancient Americas was created, examining these civilizations in a new way, illuminating their history and way of life.

Organized both chronologically and by region, the exhibition begins with the Archaic period (c. 6000-500 B.C.), during which the first works of art and identifiable ceremonial structures were made. The largest settlement found from this period is Poverty Point in the Louisiana forest.

Next is the Woodland period (beginning in 500 B.C.), which encompasses the Adena and Hopewell societies of the central Ohio River valley. Ceremonial mound building, stone carving, and increased trade were hallmarks of this time.

The exhibition then surveys the Mississippian period (beginning in 800). Included are plans and drawings of major archaeological sites, most notably Cahokia, located just across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis. "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand" subsequently delves into the effects of contact with European settlers on these Native Americans, concluding with the relocation of the tribes to the Oklahoma territories beginning in the 1830s.

As the societies of these ancient Native Americans developed, so did their art. Objects created from precious materials such as mica, stone, ceramic, shell, copper, silver, and gold were used by the chiefs as trade items and were rife with symbolic meaning. …