Friday, December 25, 2009

Cherokee Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears is a sad chapter in U.S. history

The Trail of Tears Monument, New Echota State Park, Calhoun, Georgia

          Some places I visit are inherently sad. The former Cherokee capital at New Echota, Ga., is one those places. From there, 15,000 members of the Cherokee Nation started on their 800-mile march to Oklahoma, known to history as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokees were ripped from their homes without supplies, kept in disease-ridden camps before their move and forced to make the trip in winter, conditions under which more than 4,000 of them died.
          Gen. Charles Floyd sent a message on June 18, 1838, to his commander, Gen. Winfield Scott: "I have the pleasure to inform you that I am now fully convinced there is not an Indian within the limits of my command, except a few in my possession who will be sent to Ross’ Landing tomorrow. None can escape our troops. Georgia is ultimately in possession of Cherokee Country."
          Georgians had begun coveting the Cherokee land when gold was found there. As the pressure for more farmland grew, steps were taken to take possession. The Cherokee problems were taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice John Marshall said what was being done was illegal. President Andrew Jackson’s reaction was, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
         It struck me as I toured the two state historic sites set up along the Trail of Tears that their development was an act of contrition, an apology for the earlier act of greed. Here was a group of native people who had taken on white ways, built log cabins, farmed, ran businesses, set up a printing press, translated books into their language and tried to fit in.

Reconstruction of the Cherokee Court House at New Echota

        A treaty was signed against the will of the majority to transfer to Oklahoma. Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot led the group of Cherokees who supported removal. On June 22, 1839, all three were killed in retaliation for signing the treaty of New Echota.
        A lottery was set up, and the Cherokee nation was divided into lots, which included the homes of the residents. Lots were put into one barrel and the names of Georgians who wanted the land put in another and drawings were made.
        These transfers were made without the Cherokees’ knowledge. One day the new owner would arrive and take over.

Cherokee capital at New Echota
         The more interesting of the two sites is the restoration of the Cherokee capital at New Echota, a short distance off Interstate 75 between Chattanooga, Tenn., and Atlanta. At the center there is a small museum with artifacts, stories and a 20-minute film giving background on the events leading up to the removal of the Cherokees. Only one of the original buildings is intact, but careful archeological research has located original sites and the buildings have been restored and furnished in period style.
         The most interesting to me was the print shop. The Cherokee had their own newspaper printed with the alphabet created by Sequoyah so his people could have "talking leaves." He is the only person known to have single-handedly created a written language.

The Vann tavern reconstructed at New Echota, served travelers on the Federal Road as a restaurant, store, and inn. There were guest rooms on the second floor.

Vann House
         The second site is the Vann house, 17 miles north on the Trail of Tears highway. It was owned by a Cherokee chief who became quite wealthy by knowing where the federal highway was going through the land and setting up businesses such as taverns and a ferry along the way. He also owned 110 slaves and had them make the bricks and the lumber for what in those days was a magnificent house.
         Here there is also a 20-minute background movie, a small museum and a guide who takes you through the period-furnished house and tells you the history of the Vann family.

The Vann "estate" was like a small town.  This log cabin stands beside the Chief Vann House.

        Both sites are in pleasant settings. I was there on a spring day when the weather was perfect. This gave me a feeling as to why there was so much resistance to moving to far-away Oklahoma.

A small museum near the Vann House shows how well the Cherokee had accepted the American life style of the time.

Friday, December 18, 2009



Men’s work, warm season: ceremonies, warfare, ballgames, construction, fishing, land clearing for farms. Women’s work, warm season: cultivation, cooking, collecting firewood, curing skins.

        I was at the visitor’s center at Ocmulgee National Monument, a rich archaeological site just outside Macon, Georgia, viewing the history of the various Native American groups inhabiting this area during the past 10,000 years.
         The Mississippians were of special interest, a farming people who had built the highest-level culture that existed north of Mexico between 900 and 1100 A.D. A sedentary people, they grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins and tobacco. The men were evidently skilled hunters — their lifestyle as outlined above seemed rather ideal for the men of the tribe.
         One of the remains of the Mississippian culture is a series of large mounds like those at Cahokia Mounds in Illinois near St. Louis. The Great Temple Mound in Ocmulgee is 42 feet high, with a 300-by-270-foot base and was built up in stages over time. In climbing to its top, I found it hard to imagine people without good shovels or wheelbarrows carrying the tons of dirt needed to create it.
         I have noted in my travels that humans tend to find things to put their excess energy into when food and shelter are readily available. With time on their hands, they find some task that they can assign great importance to. This appears to have been one of those tasks.
        Near the temple mound is a funeral mound that was constructed in seven stages and where more than 100 bodies have been uncovered. Again, I have noted that when we humans set up communities, some people are recognized as being special, and their deaths are assigned special recognition. Often important items are buried with them, and some of the Mississippians’ grave artifacts are on display in the visitors’ center. Whatever our basic human propensities are, they seem to be demonstrated by what we see at Ocmulgee.

A sign at the entrance to one of the mounds.

        Ceremonies also seem a natural outcome of humans settling in one place, and here they were centered in and around a 42-foot-diameter earth lodge. The tour brochure says it was probably a meeting place of the town’s political and religious leaders. Three seats are on a clay platform that is shaped like a big bird, and 47 seats are around the wall. The original lodge was destroyed by fire, which gave archeologists a firm basis for reconstructing it over the original clay floor that is estimated to be 1,000 years old.
        Little attention was paid to Ocmulgee as a historical site until 1934. Before that, a railroad had been built through the area, destroying some of the mounds, and collectors of Indian artifacts had been raiding mounds to uncover artifacts. The renovation was done with labor from the Works Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. We owe a number of our national monuments to these Depression-era “make work” programs. It’s a significant legacy.
        The modern visitors’ center displays artifacts left by the Mississippians, such as decorated pottery, clay statues of humans and copper ornaments.

Farming implements of the Ocmulgee Indians

        Shell ornaments indicate that trade existed between these people and coastal tribes. At the center are also accounts of the other peoples who have inhabited the area, starting with the ice-age hunters who came to the New World about 10,000 years ago.
         A group called the Lamar lived along the Ocmulgee in the 1300s, and it was these people who were here when Hernando De Soto made his expedition into the region in 1540.
         The contact was really bad news for the Lamar, who were decimated by Spanish diseases. Creek Indians settled in the area for a while, but warfare between the British and the Spanish had driven them out by 1715.
         The pioneer naturalist William Bartram visited the area in the 1770s and noted “the wonderful remains of the power and grandeur of the ancients in this part of America.”

The visitor’s centers at National Parks and Monuments are often very distinctive and well designed.

Sunday, December 13, 2009



A work of art, inside and out

The National Museum of the American Indian is a work of art both inside and out.

        A visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., was a great experience for me in many ways. The façade itself is a work of art with its projections and curves rather than the square-box design of many of the surrounding buildings on the National Mall.
        Along the walkway to the building are a river, rapids, waterfalls and a swamp. The landscape has 25 native tree species and 150 species of plants including a crop area with corn, beans and squash. I was getting a feel for the American Indian story before I even entered the building.
        As I stepped inside my first response was, “This architect must have studied with Frank Lloyd Wright.” This is one eye-catching edifice. In actuality the building was designed by Douglas Cardinal, a Blackfoot, and a team of Native architects.
        At 254,000 square-feet the museum is an impressive size. Add to this marvelous setting great state-of-the-art media presentations and the intelligent use of exhibition space. Opened in 2004 the museum is a major addition to the already outstanding list of museums on the mall.
        This mostly successful attempt to relate history from an American Indian point of view gets complicated by the fact that there were hundreds of tribes, each with a story and theory of the cosmos. As a result I was flooded with so many images that I could not sort out a coherent picture of the American Indian.
        Instead I can only relate some of the pieces. A large wall map of the New World lights up sections showing how the diseases brought by Europeans decimated large numbers of Native Americans with smallpox, measles, cholera, and other illnesses that Europeans had developed defenses against. Clearly illustrated was the progression of these diseases that killed as much as 90 percent of the original population.

Identity by Design a visiting exhibition

         A major visiting exhibition, Identity by Design, was on women’s dresses and their decorations. The bead designs and cuts of the leather varied from tribe to tribe making recognition easy. One section shows the process by which hides were turned into soft leather with a combination of props (such as an untreated deer skin) and a movie to demonstrate how a combination of deer brain, fat and lye were used to soften leather and then how smoke was used to complete the process. Several of the displays showed how skins could be turned into dresses in different ways, one, two and three skin dresses.
         One wall was covered with guns used by Indians against the Whites from the flintlock through Sharps, Winchesters and Colts up to the automatic rifles used at Wounded Knee.

A display of guns used by Indians against whites

        The Native American stories are told in these displays with movies, posed manikins, domestic items, photos, verbal recordings and at one stop 3D moving figures walking beside us. The displays are cleverly arranged so that each is separated and individuated from the others. It was always clear what tribe’s artifacts one was viewing.
        I took the hour-long highlights tour led by a woman of Cherokee and Creek background. At the end of the tour she told the real story leading to the Trail of Tears when her family was forced to move to Oklahoma, emphasizing that for too long the movies and books have told these stories from the White’s point of view.
        I had lunch at the Mitsitam Café that had at least seven different counters with native foods from different parts of the New World. I picked up a trout sandwich, wild rice, corn on cob and seafood soup from the Northwest Indians’ counter.
        Four floors of exhibits and several large screen movies are sufficient to make this a day-long adventure.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


American Indian school stresses cultural values

        LAWRENCE, Kan. - The U.S. government had noble intentions when it set up the United States Industrial Training School for American Indian children in 1884 in Lawrence, Kan. The goal was to remove American Indian children from their homes, train the boys in agricultural skills and the girls in homemaking tasks. The hopes were that this would turn them into fully assimilated Americans.

Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., has gone from an institution that sought to assimilate American Indians into mainstream culture to one that seeks to preserve the cultures of various tribes.

        Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., has gone from an institution that sought to assimilate American Indians into mainstream culture to one that seeks to preserve the cultures of various tribes.
        To accomplish this assimilation, they forbade the children to speak their native languages and prevented any contact with their families for four years. To the children, this kindly paternalism was more like being sent to prison. Others have referred to this as a form of cultural genocide.
        Carla and I were at the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum on the grounds of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence. This small center provides the visitor an overview of the history of the university from its negative start to its growth into today’s small, modern college stressing American Indian culture.
        In 1970, the name was changed to Haskell Indian Junior College, and it began offering only college-level programs. In 1993, it became Haskell Indian Nations University.
        The week’s menu from the early years - the same every week - was posted at the cultural center. The students were fed a monotonous diet, with breakfasts mostly of mush and bread. Their daily schedule was like that of army recruits; they were marched to classes and meals and awakened and put to bed to the sound of bugles. The captive students had poor medical care, resulting in a higher-than-expected death rate.
        In retrospect, this attempt by the U.S. government to bring American Indians into the mainstream was a form of cultural cruelty. On our visits to other American Indian cultural centers around the country, we have yet to see any indication that any tribe saw it as a benefit. Haskell University has reversed this original policy of trying to get rid of differences and now seeks to preserve the cultures of various tribes.
        We enjoyed our walking tour of this campus of more than 900 students from 130 different American Indian tribes. The university is supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Students pay no tuition and a fee of only $215 a semester to cover housing and food.
        To be eligible for admission, students from most tribes must have one-quarter American Indian ancestry unless he or she is Cherokee, in which case one of the ancestors must be on a list created before the Trail of Tears. That means Cherokees need to have little American Indian DNA. Qualified students are taken on a first-apply, first-come basis.
        Buildings range from the 1898 Hiawatha Hall to recently built residential halls. Many of the buildings are from the 1950s. As we toured some of these buildings, we saw some striking American Indian murals, the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame and some modern classrooms with state-of-the-art facilities.
        On our pass through the student newspaper area, we picked up copies of the most recent issues of The Indian Leader, "The Oldest Native American Student Newspaper Since 1887." Besides the sports stories, there were stories on alcoholism, diabetes, AIDS and mental illness, subjects of importance to the students.
        Majors are available at Haskell in American Indian Studies, Tribal Archives and Tribal Museum Management, environmental science, business administration and elementary education. The first two majors are a complete turnaround from the original goal of assimilation; the elementary education major is intended to improve education in American Indian schools by preparing teachers to instruct from a unique perspective.
        What is happening at Haskell now complies with the goals set by the Native American Congress on Indian Education in 1991: "Improved education for Native people will enable them to achieve equal political status within American society and will protect them against complete acculturation. Thus, only with this positive education will Native Americans be able to maintain their values while coexisting in mainstream society."

Friday, December 4, 2009


Fountain of Youth keeps older memories flowing

A life sized group of indians are prepared to meet the Spanish new comers.

         My wife, Carla, and I are at the age when a drink from the Fountain of Youth sounds like a good idea. We were recently in St. Augustine, Fla., where the fountain has been doing a good business since Ponce de Leon first drank from it in 1513.
        We were not expecting the attraction to be very impressive and were surprised by how much we learned. We first visited the original spot where the fountain poured forth its water. It’s now capped, but we were given a small glass of the sulfur-infested water. The cheerful guide, who said he was 140 years old because he had to drink so much water each day to prove it was drinkable, gave a short lecture on de Leon.
         The Fountain of Youth room features two life-size dioramas: the Indian village and a scene of the Spanish coming ashore. De Leon and his men were greeted by a tribe of virtual giants, most of the men being more than 6 feet tall. Their strongly built leader was more than 7 feet tall. He would usually take the tallest woman in the tribe as his bride. This wouldn’t have been so interesting but for the fact that de Leon was the tallest of the Spanish soldiers on the trip and he was only 4 feet, 11 inches tall.
         No wonder the natives greeted them warmly. After all, in a world where size counted, these little people would have been hard to take seriously as any kind of threat.
         A misinterpretation of what the Indians said caused the Spaniards to believe this local spring was the fountain of youth. The average Spaniard died before the age of 40. They thought the chief of this tribe said he was 300 years old and that his father was still alive, albeit a bit decrepit. Regrettably, these magnificent specimens of good health and longevity did not have long to live because European diseases pretty much wiped them out.
         De Leon immediately had casks of the water loaded onto the ship for his personal use.
         Unfortunately, he died from an infection from a poisoned arrow in his leg as a result of encountering a tribe on the other coast, which wasn’t into friendly greetings of strangers in iron suits.
          Next we moved to the most unusual display I’ve seen recently: a giant globe of the Earth about 20 feet in diameter and brightly lit from the inside. As music from "Star Wars" played, the curtain opened to this glowing Earth against a starry background.
         The narrator told us of the initial voyages to the New World and also showed the sailing routes and the places where colonies were first established.
          From here we went to a planetarium with a ship’s mast amidst the projection machinery and were given an introduction to how sailors in Columbus’ day sailed by the stars.
          The rest of the attraction consisted of a building giving the history of the people who lived here with some very good discussion of how they lived, obtained their food and fought their wars. A grave had been discovered with many bodies of Indians who become Christians, and the Catholic Church formally re-interned them. We saw a marker near where de Leon came ashore and an archeological dig, covered when we were there, in which many artifacts have been found.

The original fountain has been capped, but you can still get a drink of the water.

          The water didn’t do us any harm, and we did feel at least more intellectually stimulated as we left the grounds.

Saturday, November 28, 2009



Picture by Wayne Anderson
Nestled into the limestone cliffs in Arizona is Montezuma Castle, one of the best-preserved cliff ruins in the country.


        VERDE VALLEY, Ariz. - It seemed that Sedona, Ariz., had received too much advance publicity when we visited earlier this year. The hype - "a mesmerizing experience," "breathtaking monoliths," "spectacular scenery," "the most beautiful setting in America," "a once in a lifetime experience" - made it sound like an instant Venture Bound story, but it was hard to get a handle on what to say about it.
We did take a pleasant guided walking tour of nearby Red Rock State Park, walked along the rushing waters of Oak Creek and visited two excellent art shops.
        We found our story south of Sedona at Montezuma Well and Montezuma Castle. Leaving Interstate 17, we followed another car five miles over a winding dusty road, always managing to stay far enough behind so we could see the road, but not far enough to keep our rental car from becoming coated with a thick layer of dust.
        Sitting in the Upper Sonoran Desert, Montezuma Well is 368 feet across in an ancient cavern fed by subterranean springs of 76-degree water year-round. A side cave in the limestone cliffs takes the water down the hill to form Beaver Creek. The experts claim the well has been producing an unvarying 1½ million gallons of water a day since prehistoric times, but even using dye and divers, they have not been able to figure out where the water is coming from.
        In any case, this became the center of a settlement for Sinagua Indians from 900 to 1400 A.D. The name is Spanish for "without water" - sin agua. Despite their name, the tribe used stone tools to dig a mile-long canal from the creek to the flatlands to irrigate their corn, squash, beans and cotton.
        It took us a while to spot the cliff houses underneath the rim of the cavern because they were the same color as the surrounding limestone. Entry to these houses would have been by wooden ladders that could be pulled down to prevent interlopers. Wayne took a walk on a steep path leading down into the cavern, where there were some pit houses being restored. Debris on the ridge of the cavern and surrounding hilltops was the remains of pueblos, from one-room houses to community houses of as many as 50 rooms.

        About 12 miles farther south, we arrived at Montezuma Castle National Monument. After taking in the visitor’s center, we stepped out into the open space in front of the cliff dwelling and found ourselves properly impressed. Nestled into the limestone cliffs 200 feet above the flood plain of Beaver Creek was one of the best-preserved cliff ruins in the United States. There stood the five-story, 20-room high-rise apartment where Sinagua Indians had lived for some 300 years.
        Montezuma had nothing to do with the area, but early settlers assumed the imposing dwellings were connected to the famous Aztec emperor. We learned at the visitor’s center that the area had been abandoned at least 100 years before Montezuma was born.
        The area would have supported about 200 people. Archaeologists have excavated mounds of broken pottery, worn-out tools and animal bones that have allowed them to reconstruct the Sinagua lifestyle.
Life evidently was good here for 300 years with good crops, fishing, and animals to hunt. Then, sometime in the 1400s, the villages began to be deserted. Why? No one knows for sure, but theories include disease, drought, overpopulation, invasion, breakdown of the trade networks or perhaps intergroup strife.
The Hopi Indians, who consider the Sinagua their ancestors, have a legend that might provide a clue. In a brochure by the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Fred Lomayesva of the Hopi Snow Clan notes: "It happened a long time ago. … Life became too easy and the people became complacent. It was as though they had forgotten who they were and how they should live. The village was in a state of shameless corruption. One day, the village began to shake and the houses caved in. Water gushed in and filled the hole where the village once stood. Suddenly, a great serpent rose up out of the water in anger at what the people had become. Upon seeing the serpent, everyone became very scared and ran away to the north and east, never to return."
        About a million people a year visit the area, and although there are no motels or camping facilities in the immediate area, Camp Verde is nearby, and Sedona is 30 miles away.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tour to Southeast Alaska

Tour to southeast Alaska provided an occasion for learning

        Several years ago, my wife, Carla and I took a 2,000-mile cruise on a ferry up the inside passage of southeast Alaska with an Elderhostel group. Usually I read books about an adventure before I go, but in this case, I didn’t do any studying of the area or the people before we left. I started with few expectations. There are advantages both ways. If you know more, you get the nuances of things; if you know less, you’re surprised more often. My lack of preparation meant that every speaker was giving me new information and every town we walked through was a novel experience.
        I knew a fair amount about the plains Indians, but nothing about the Tlingit who are among the most culturally advanced of the tribes. Their art work and social system were very sophisticated.

        The Tlingit Indians were my most fascinating find. Before Europeans came, they controlled most of what is now southeast Alaska. Because of the ease of finding food - when the tide went out, their table was set - they had free time to develop a sophisticated culture with a high level of art. Other foods were also readily available, and seal and game were close seconds salmon in their diets. Their good diet resulted in a tall, healthy people who were feared warriors. The Tlingit controlled the trading in an area that extended south to Oregon, north and inland.
        One of our instructors, Terry, a Tlingit woman was very enthusiastic about the beauty of the life of the Tlingit Indians and was very involved in showing their culture to us.
They also had beliefs that made them susceptible to Christian missionaries. The missionaries saw much of the culture as pagan and, without understanding what it meant to the Tlingits, set out to destroy it. For example, totem poles serve a variety of purposes for the Tlingits, none of them religious, but missionaries saw them as idols, so their manufacture was forbidden. It didn’t help the culture’s survival that 80 percent of the Tlingit died from smallpox and measles introduced by traders.

        Our instructors Terri, was rediscovering the native art forms. She gathered bark and roots to make baskets and wool to weave intricate Chilkat blankets, which can take a year of full-time work to make.
Although the results were great, I wouldn’t have had the patience to dig up a 50-foot root and split it lengthwise into the tiny strands she then wove into waterproof baskets. They are also known for the quality of their wood carvings, especially ceremonial masks. The prices on the baskets and blankets along with carvings such as masks and totem poles are so high that only rich patrons and museums can afford them. A totem pole is $1,000 per foot if done by an ordinary artist, $2,000 if done by a well-known artist.

        Ninety percent of southeast Alaska is made up of Tongass National Forest, and not much land is available for private residences. As a result, the price of a home is high. Places that looked little better than shacks cost $160,000. We didn’t see housing in any of the towns that looked upscale to us. There is an old-fashioned, rough-and-ready appearance to the towns, as if they were newly built, temporary dwellings for people who expected to move before long.
        The village of Wrangle didn’t even look worthy of being a spot in history. The only thing that gave it any class was the totem poles and native habitats. Despite the shoddy nature of the towns, the people who live there love it. It’s never too hot or cold; there are still berries, lots of fish and shellfish, 10,000 islands, and lots of water around you and often coming down on top of you. When I do relaxation exercises with clients and ask them to imagine a comfortable place, they pick a water scene. Southeast Alaskans can just open their eyes - the relaxing scene is there in front of them.

        Russians exploited the area for sea otter the skins of which brought an unbelievable high price. When they had killed off most of the otter they sold us the “useless” land. While they fought with the Tlingits it was a Spanish trading ship that decimated the Indians by unknowingly bringing in the small pox and measles that killed a majority of the locals whole villages at a time. This made them lose faith in their shaman’s who didn’t know how to treat these Old World diseases and most of the Tlingits were easily converted to Orthodox Christianity.
        After the United States got the land, the Tlingit put up a totem pole ridiculing Abraham Lincoln because he made them give up their slaves and gave them nothing in return.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mystery of Cahokia Mounds

Illinois’ Cahokia Mounds still hold their mysteries

COLLINSVILLE, Ill. – In the Summer of 2005 my wife, Carla and I made our second visit to Cahokia Mounds, the remains of the largest and most advanced prehistoric Indian civilization north of Mexico. Located just outside of St. Louis in Illinois near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the 2,200-acre site has been designated as a United Nations World Heritage Site, putting it in an elite group that includes the Egyptian Pyramids and the Great Wall of China.
         The afternoon walking tour of the mounds was canceled because of the heat that day, but the magnificent visitors’ center was cool and comfortable.
         We started our visit with a 20-minute movie that gives as much of the history of the site that is known. It left us with the unanswered question of how a series of highly successful communities that had flourished for several hundred years and included at times 20,000 inhabitants could have disappeared around A.D.1400.
         In the movie, large paintings captured the lifestyle of the people and gave us the background information we needed to appreciate the work that went into constructing the 65 mounds that remain of the original 120 in the surrounding area. The Indians moved more than 50-million cubic feet of earth to build the original mounds.
         At the movies’ end, the curtain went slowly up, showing us a village with Native Americans going about their daily business. The small single-family houses were covered with mats and the roofs with bundles of prairie grass. We walked through the village, which had text explaining what each of the individuals was doing.
          The mannequins are unusually well done, and their naturalness gives an air of reality to the village. One man is chipping arrowheads, another is gutting a deer, women are preparing food, and some men are sitting in a sweat hut as a young boy prepares the hot stones, while other children are playing. It is a successful reconstruction of how a moment of time would have looked to these long-vanished people.
There are three kinds of mounds. The large ones with flat tops held ceremonial buildings or the homes of important people. The other two, with conical or ridged tops, marked important locations or burial sites.
The one that had most emotional impact for me was mound 72. This mound had the bodies of nearly 300 people, mostly young women who had been sacrificed so they could serve a male leader in the next life. That he was considered important was shown by the 20,000 marine shell beads that had been imported from the coast 800 miles away to provide a bed for him.
         The guided tour, which we had taken on a previous visit, takes visitors to Monks Mound, on top of which the principal ruler lived. With a base of 14 acres and 100 feet tall, it is the largest prehistoric earth construction in the Americas. To make the mound, the natives dug 22-million cubic feet of earth, put it into baskets and carried it on their backs up the slope before dropping it. A two-level staircase lets the visitor view the area from the top.
         Archaeologists have excavated evidence of five Woodhenges, or circular sun calendars made of red cedar posts, probably used to mark the changing seasons and important ceremonies related to the raising of crops such as corn, squash and pumpkin. Cahokia has sometimes been called "the City of the Sun" because of the calendars and the sun symbols on some of the recovered artifacts.
In the visitors center we were able to immerse ourselves in the history of the area through a range of presentations. A film on archeology explains the procedures that were used for working this area, and several simulations of digs demonstrate the procedures. A visit is like taking a short course in American prehistory.
The displays include topics such as microscopic botanical analysis, bone analysis, excavating a mound, different kinds of arrowheads, the foods of the people, Mississippian culture games and the impact of agriculture.
         Visitors with a particularly strong interest in how a lost culture is rediscovered will enjoy visiting one of the three excavations that are in progress. Two of them involve work on the wooden walls that defended the community, and the third is the excavation of a ceremonial complex.
There are dozens of other mounds throughout the eastern United States, but this is the major site from which many of the others were ruled. The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and is only closed on a few special holidays. There is no charge, and experts are available to discuss the different aspects of the displays. For more information, visit the Web site at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Forth Smith museum includes a multitude of Indians

Fort Smith includes a multitude of Indians

Belle Starr's saddle is on display at the Fort Smith Museum of History

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Just when we thought we had seen it all, we would turn a corner and find something else to admire or to teach us about our country’s history.
         Carla, my wife and fellow history buff, and I had stopped at the Fort Smith Museum of History in Arkansas, another of those museums resembling a giant attic with tools, weapons and household items from each major period of the city’s history. A collection of early tools was especially good.
         The exhibits cover western Arkansas history from the early American Indian settlements to the present. Besides the American Indian stone tools and weapons, there is a small statue from the Mayan culture that must have come to this area through trading.
         American Indians were well-established in the area, and the exhibits pay attention to the problems of removing them from what they saw as their home territory. The white settlers called it “voluntary” removal.
The whole process was complicated by the flood of American Indians from the southeastern United States. The tribes involved were Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole. Brought into western Arkansas over the Trail of Tears in 1820, these tribes were then pushed into what is now Oklahoma.
Initially Fort Smith served as a supply depot for American Indians, but in 1824 the Army moved out and trading posts and farmers moved in. The soil was rich — “too rich for Indians” in some people’s minds.
The area also became a center for illegal whiskey peddling. Because of jurisdictional problems, lawbreakers went into Indian Territory, where they would be beyond the reach of U.S. and state courts.
         To help solve the problems caused by this outlaw territory, a federal court was established at Fort Smith in 1871, presided over by Judge Isaac Parker, the “hanging judge.” This museum has his original courtroom furniture. The Fort Smith National Historic Site, just down the street, houses the original room where the court was held and has copies of the furniture.
        During the Civil War, western Arkansas was under Union control, but despite this protection, the area was devastated. Small displays feature Civil War artifacts.
Belle Starr’s sidesaddle also is prominently displayed. Most stories about her are exaggerations or are untrue. She came from a good family and was well-educated, having studied Greek, Latin, music and etiquette.
        She successfully raised, sold and bred horses. Her main offense was fencing stolen horses for some of her outlaw friends. She was found guilty of horse stealing and sent to prison in Detroit, where she was murdered at the age of 41. Her killer was never found. Her daughter, Pearl, later became a Fort Smith madam.
         Furniture, clothes and other artifacts are on display from the Victorian era and from World War I and World War II. The community is proud of William O. Darby, who started the Army Rangers in World War II as a companion group to the British commandos. One room displays pictures, uniforms, weapons and news stories from his life. He was wounded three times, decorated 10 times and was eventually killed in Italy a day before all Germans in Italy surrendered. At the time, papers promoting him to the rank of brigadier general were being processed.
        We tried to take the walking tour of the refurbished houses in the Fort Smith Old District, but neither of us is enthusiastic about older houses unless they have a ghost story or someone around to tell us about the people who once lived there. So we moved to our next stop, Van Buren, which had received good notices in the local literature. It is noted for its train excursions in the Ozark Mountains. The trains run from April through September, but because we were there in February, we didn’t get a chance to experience it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Memorial in Sarasotas explores De Soto's Greed

VENTURE BOUND Memorial in Sarasota explores De Soto’s greed
         “Twenty years after De Soto visited the Coosa towns, other explorers found barren fields, abandoned towns and fragmented settlements where there had been a prosperous chiefdom. These were the early signs of the European disease and depredations that brought about the collapse of cultures throughout the Southeast.” - National Park brochure

        My wife, Carla, and I attended an Elderhostel on theater in Sarasota, Fla., that was tightly scheduled early and late in the day. We managed to take an afternoon off, and in sorting through the many attractions in the area decided to go to the De Soto National Memorial in nearby Bradenton.
         The National Park Service considers De Soto’s wandering through the countryside in search of gold significant enough to deserve the memorial, along with a small visitors’ center.
        Born in 1500 of a noble family, Hernando De Soto at the age of 14 left Spain, became part of a raiding team in what is now Panama and made a fortune from gold and slaves in Nicaragua. Not satisfied with this wealth, he joined Francisco Pizarro in subduing Peru, returning to Spain a very wealthy man at the age of 36.
His greed for gold and conquest must have been insatiable because after a few years of ease, he cashed in his wealth, bought boats and enlisted an army to go back to the New World.
He arrived in Florida near present-day Bradenton with 622 soldiers, a large number of Indians as slaves to tote the supplies, 200 horses, hundreds of pigs and fierce dogs for disciplining and frightening the Indians. He left a hundred of his men at this spot and headed off for what turned out to be a four-year, 4,000-mile hike across what is now southeastern United States.
        The visitors’ center has a small display area with helmets, chain mail, weapons and a suit of armor. After lifting the chain mail, it was hard for me to imagine how anyone could walk far wearing it, especially because the Spanish were reported to be less than 5 feet tall. The weapons, though primitive by our standards, were so superior to the Indians’ bows and arrows that in any pitched battle the losses on the Indian side were tremendous.
        The visitors’ center shows a 21-minute movie that explains the problems the Spanish encountered and why the expedition failed. Most of the movie is done with re-enactors, but the part of the movie that had the most emotional impact for me was the drawings, evidently done at the time, of how the Spanish mistreated the Indians they encountered. This included torture and the cutting off of hands.
        I walked away from the movie thinking what horrible people conquistadors had been. Finding the city of gold was their goal. The Indians knew this, and to get them to move on they kept telling them the gold was just beyond the next city. De Soto’s expedition was one of looting, burning, raping, enslaving and killing.
Perhaps his greatest crime against the Indians was the introduction of diseases for which they had no resistance, diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of them.
        Coincidentally, De Soto died on the trip, lost half of his men and most of his horses and found nothing of value to take back to Europe.
        The memorial also has a walking trail to demonstrate the kind of territory the Spanish had to work their way through.
        From mid-December until mid-April, a group of park rangers and volunteers put on costumes and give demonstrations of how weapons were used and food was prepared in De Soto’s time.
This memorial is definitely worth a full morning or afternoon visit simply to learn more about our country’s history — even though some of the details are far from pleasant.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Panhandle fun comes easy in Canyon, Texas

An exhibit at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, depicts two American Indians skinning a buffalo.

        CANYON, Texas - American Indians, oilmen, pioneers and giant ground sloths are all honored at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the largest historical museum in Texas. It is located not in Austin or Houston but at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, a small city in the Texas Panhandle south of Amarillo.
          My wife, Carla, and I had hoped to visit the nearby canyon, but as we approached the town, rain was falling, ice was possible on the roads and the area was shrouded in fog. The inside of this massive museum was a welcome escape from the elements.
          The weather was a sample of what made this part of the country so difficult for humans - a land that also covers part of Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. If the country had been configured by landscape, this area would have been a separate state of its own.
         This harsh environment has been inhabited by humans for at least 14,000 years, and the relics from those who have struggled here have been gathered in the museum. This is considered the best collection of Southern Plains Indian artifacts in the United States.
         A life-size display of two American Indians skinning a buffalo is accompanied by a video with the following warning: "This film contains some graphic images that may disturb some viewers."
With only a sharpened flint, an American Indian in the video skins, guts and butchers a buffalo. It’s what you don’t see before you buy a piece of beef at the market. We learned how every piece of the buffalo was useful, including the horns as cups and the bladder as a canteen. By the end of the demonstration, I was impressed with how bison were the Wal-Mart of their day.
        I felt a conscious attempt was being made to give American Indians their due; that is, in many displays, white Americans were the villains. The film on the battle for Adobe Walls and its aftermath shows that the local Indians were attempting to stop the slaughter of the buffalo on which they depended.
        Shooters were coming from around the country to kill the buffalo and leave the bodies rotting. One shooter claimed to have killed 100 buffalo in a day. Indians knew that without the buffalo, they could not live in this provision-scarce area. As result of the protest, more troops were sent in, making life more difficult for the American Indians.
        Within the museum is a rebuilt pioneer town, complete with old buildings filled with artifacts. I was struck by how small everything was at the turn of the 20th century in small-town America. Most people have bedrooms bigger than the dentists’ or lawyers’ offices of that day and even, in some cases, the general store.
Attention is paid to the earlier, nonhuman residents in the fossil collection of dinosaurs and later animals such as the giant ground sloth and mastodons that were probably killed off by the Indians.
        How did so many people in the panhandle become rich? That, too, is explained by a documentary with original film made during the period of successful oil exploration. I found myself a little annoyed at what heroic stature they gave to the men who developed the oil industry in the area. Little acknowledgement is given to either luck or sharp business practices. To emphasize the importance of oil to the region, there is a large gas and petroleum section that includes an immense oil drilling rig from 1925.
         When we stopped by the research center, we learned about its extensive manuscript collection on the history of ranching, including the records from the Charles Goodnight ranch. There is also an extensive photograph collection and oral history interviews of people telling the story of the Western frontier.
          Other exhibits on Western heritage feature paleontology, transportation and art. This is the kind of place that when I think I’ve reached the end of the exhibits, another room opens around the next corner, with something new that makes me wonder.