THE LOST CITY of CAHOKIA

By Berg, Emmett | Humanities, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

THE LOST CITY of CAHOKIA


Berg, Emmett, Humanities


Ancient Tribes of the Mississippi Brought to Life

THE CITY OF CAHOKIA, IN MODERN-DAY ILLINOIS, HAD A population of twenty thousand at its pinnacle in the 1300s. With pyramids, mounds, and several large ceremonial areas, Cahokia was the hub of a way of life for millions of Native Americans before the society's decline and devastation by foreign diseases. Representatives from eleven tribes are working alongside archaeologists and anthropologists to assist the Art Institute of Chicago in developing an exhibition that explores artistic and cultural themes of a major branch of pre-Columbian civilization-the direct ancestors of most American Indians today. "Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South," opening November 20, comprises more than three hundred works. It's one of the largest showings of artifacts, design, and architecture dating from the rise and decline of Mississippian civilizations in the Midwest and the South between 2000 B.C.E and 1600 CE.

"This particular exhibition has the potential to be the most important exhibition ever on Native American Indians. It could change the popular conception of what Native Americans were like," says Garrick Bailey, a Tulsa University professor of cultural anthropology who is part white, part Choctaw, and part Cherokee.

"One of the strongest images in American society, even today, is that of the American Indian," he says. "It seems to range only from red devil to noble savageboth a simple child of nature. It's very pervasive. It's had a tremendous impact on how white America sees Indians and increasingly how younger American Indians see themselves. Trying to address that issue is the most important one."

Tribal members will serve as docents for the exhibition. Mural-sized reconstruction drawings will evoke the panorama and complexity of ancient settlements found in present day Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, along the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, and elsewhere in the South. The murals are meant to reinforce the shared themes and worldview of ancient America implicit in the artifacts, although there are regional distinctions and variation.

The objects on display include ceremonial pipes sculptured in animal and human forms, conch shells engraved with ritualistic scenes, copper repoussé plates of rulers in full regalia, masks of shell and wood, embellished ceramic vessels and figurai forms, finely worked stone implements, mica figures, and jewelry. Many of the works come from private collections and have never before been viewed widely.

Hero, hawk, and open hand refer to three recurrent motifs in native mythology regarding life, death, and renewal. Pipe effigies and fertility figures depict heroes, or legendary figures-often ancestors or mythical sources of life-who were also supernatural protectors and models for human leaders. Figures such as the hawk were connected with forces in nature and were believed to be linked to humans; dreams and ritual offerings made by shamans, hunters, and rulers maintained the cycles of society. The open hand is a sign in the Native American constellation associated with the passage of the soul from the realm of the living to that of the dead. Such cosmological forces were invoked by rituals and by aligning ceremonial sites to the paths of the sun or moon and the movements of constellations.

The exhibition begins with a map of the eastern U.S. stripped of all detail except place names descended from Native American languages-a riposte to the American concept of "manifest destiny": the idea that America was a wilderness until Europeans arrived, and that native peoples were ill-equipped to forge a civilization of their own.

"Names of hundreds of places and geographical features, signs pointing to scattered archaeological sites, and many routes of overland travel testify to that fact that there never really was an untamed wilderness here-or at least not since the time of the mastodon and saber-tooth cat," writes Richard Townsend, the Institute's curator for Amerindian art, in his introduction to the exhibition catalog. …

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