Because We're Curious
Illinois history did not begin with the whites
October 5, 1983
A column in which I complain about the public's ignorance of Illinois’s Indian past while exposing my own. I note that the Illiniwek were culturally akin to Algonquin people to the east, yet the famous Chief Illiniwek mascot who regales fans at University of Illinois ball games wears a costume of Plains Indians. In fact, the later Illiniwek were a hybrid culture that had borrowed much from the Siouian peoples as climate change caused Illinois to resemble the Plains ecologically.
It is a telling beginning. Even though what we now call Illinois has been occupied continuously for perhaps 12,000 years, even though there existed near modern East St. Louis a metropolis of as many as 40,000 people which outshone anything white settlers were to build for another 700 years, and even though the state itself bears an Indian name, the series of dioramas at Springfield’s Illinois State Museum entitled "The Story of Illinois" begins with a scene depicting the arrival of the first white Europeans in 1673.
The "Story of Illinois" is a relic of an earlier era when racial arrogance was more accepted than today, if no more widespread. The impression that Illinois history began with the arrival of whites is something which the museum will begin putting right next year when it unveils an ambitious quartet of life-size dioramas depicting various eras in the history of red Illinois.
Until such time as the touring public is thus re-educated, it remains fair to say that the average modern Illinoisan’s knowledge of the Indian heritage of the state is a hopeless muddle. A trivial example surfaced last year. The mascot of the University of Illinois, Chief Illiniwek, is named after the tribe who met French explorers Marquette and Joliet in 1673. The Illiniwek were culturally akin to the Algonquin to the east. Yet the dance with which Chief Illiniwek entertains football fans is patterned after that of the Sioux tribe; his costume likewise is of Sioux design and manufacture. Worse, even the name is a misnomer; the Illiniwek are not believed to have even had chiefs in the sense in which we have come to understand the term.
The historic tribes which inhabited the state included the Illiniwek, the Fox, the Sauk, the Kickapoo, and others. Public knowledge about such historical Indian groups is sketchy, but the average lllinoisan knows less about Indian prehistory hereabouts than he does about our system of local property taxation. As noted, the Indian occupation extends backward some 12,000 years. Experts have divided that span into four major cultural phases—the Archaic (ending about 1,000 BC), the Woodland (1,000 BC to about AD 800), the Mississippian (AD 800 to around AD 1550), and the historical. Each of these in turn had an Early or Late and sometimes a Middle period, each of which boasted distinctive tools, settlement patterns, and social organization.
The busy reader may ask, "So what?" Archaeologists and anthropologists like to say (just in case there is a legislative budget committee member listening) that we have much to learn from the Indian experience in Illinois. This isn’t so far-fetched. The "mound city" at Cahokia, for instance, grew from the mud of the American Bottom as a result of what one anthropologist has described as "a complex feedback interaction involving population growth and an advance in agricultural productivity" based on new plant varieties and improved cultivation technology) and convenient transportation access, which is exactly how Chicago got so big.
The Mississippian people—that is, the people of the culture anthropologists have dubbed Mississippian, after the river valley—built Cahokia beginning about 1,200 years ago. They had a trade network which extended as far as the Great Lakes, the Carolinas, and Oklahoma, and built a city—complete with suburbs of a sort—which was the largest known in North America. Like Chicagoans, they had to devise political structures to cope with increased population densities and competition for resources. Also like Chicagoans, they didn’t get it exactly right.
In most respects the Mississippians were the most culturally advanced of lllinois’s prehistoric inhabitants. The invention of the steel plow by John Deere was actually the second major innovation in corn farming; the first was the replacement of the digging stick by the hoe (an improvement which is also sometimes attributed to the Mississippians’ predecessors, the Middle Woodland or Hopewell peoples). The hoe made possible productivity increases which in turn made possible the larger, settled populations of towns. (The dependence on crops also was a spur to religion, according to some experts. The Indians had a shaman to insure their bounty; our farmers have John Block. Same song, different key.)
The Mississippian culture declined inexplicably just before the white influx. Much of the speculation as to its demise in Illinois centers around environmental factors, an issue not without relevance now. Depletion of soil nutrients through over-cropping, killing off of big game, exhaustion of timber needed for fuel and building, have all been offered in explanation—and all are a warning to us.
The answer to this and other questions are waiting to be unearthed. Literally. Illinois is littered with remains of Indian villages, burials, and camp sites from every period. A survey of the routes of a proposed rail corridor near Springfield in the mid-l970s cataloged more than 100 such sites. A similar survey done in advance of crews building the Central Illinois Expressway found eighty-five. Dr. Stuart Struever, the man who’s led the digging at Kampsville, perhaps the most important continuously occupied site in the eastern U.S., once estimated that there were at least 25,000 sites worth excavating in southern Illinois.
And re-excavating. In 1980, for example, scientists revisited the Modoc Rock Shelter, a 9,000-year-old camp site in Randolph County which had been first excavated in the mid-l950s and since preserved as a national historic site. Using the latest methods (fine mesh screening and flotation techniques which can recover very small plant and animal remains) they were able to gain new insights into ancient diets and thus ecological conditions. They also obtained new plant remains buried at the site, which, when tested using more sophisticated radiocarbon dating techniques than were available thirty years ago, gave more accurate dates for the shelter’s various human occupations. The result is a significantly amended chronology of the site, of the inhabitants’ use of stone tools, and of the relationships between changing climate and their changing economy and culture.
It will not surprise readers to hear that not nearly enough money is being spent to explore these sites. True, more is being spent than in the recent past; federal law, for example, requires the excavation of significant archaeological sites imperiled by road construction. (One such "rescue dig" on the route of Interstate 270 near Cahokia in 1977 discovered a magnificent 700-year-old statue of a woman.) But farming and urban development are destroying hundreds of potentially rich archaeological sites each year.
At one level, popular interest in Illinois prehistory has never been higher. Dickson Mounds near Lewistown (an adjunct to the Illinois State Museum) offers simulated digs and similar fare to big audiences. Kampsville has made an industry of catering to visiting "arkies" and touring students. Indeed, one could make a plausible case for the rescue of Indian remains on the grounds that by supplying the tourist industry with novelties it generates a positive cash flow. Yet archaeology and allied sciences are never likely to command much public attention in Springfield, and even less in the private sector. A society can be judged not according to how it does the things that need to be done but how it does the things which ought to be done. How much nicer it would be to hear a governor, asked why the state was spending money to dig up its past, reply simply, "Because we’re curious." ●