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A painting of Cahokia Mounds State Historic site by William R. Iseminger. Source: William R. Iseminger

Cahokia: The Rise and Fall of an Indigenous Empire

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A young Indigenous man, a Pilgrim, has been walking all day carrying a large bundle basket on his back. His long black hair is tied up in a bun at the back of his head, and he has new, round, purplish, flint clay spools in his ears. The young man’s body is taught, lean, and muscular, and a simple red loincloth is draped around his waist and through his legs, with the tail of the cloth flowing behind him.

This Pilgrim is journeying into the ceremonial city center of Cahokia from his new farming home community a couple of days walking distance away. The Pilgrim’s whole family, clan, and tribe had heard the great stories of the Cahokian Empire and had left their former homelands, much farther away, to see if the stories about Cahokia were indeed true. They had found a place in one of the suburban farming collectives that paid tribute crops to Cahokia.

The stories about Cahokia are everywhere. Stories about more people gathering here than anyone could ever imagine, in a large “city,” where work was done for the greater good of the city itself. Not just people living closely, but living in a new manner, for something greater than themselves.

As the Pilgrim moves closer to the city center, he passes many Indigenous women working the fields of corn, beans, and squash. All around him is a vast floodplain, stretching for miles and miles. High along the bluffs framing the floodplain, the Pilgrim sees low burial mounds, thatch-roofed buildings with burial scaffolds, perhaps open so the dead can see the heavens. The floodplain is filled with marshy lowlands, and he passes by thousands of cattails, watercress, and duckweeds.

As the Pilgrim moves closer to the city center, the marshlands and crop fields give way to open plazas and well-trodden paths, and he sees the larger, angular, flat-topped ceremonial mounds rising out of the landscape, and smoke trails emanating from larger thatched artifices.

The Pilgrim hungrily smells the pungent feasts of deer, elk, bear, and bison meat everywhere, mixed with the sweet scent of sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and juniper incense. The sound of drums and singing looms in the distance. The Pilgrim had never seen so many people in one place, thousands upon thousands of people, all speaking different languages, and all living in peace with one another.

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Taylor Keen is a senior lecturer in the Heider College of Business Administration at Creighton University. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, the founder of Sacred Seed, an organization devoted to propagating tribal seed sovereignty, and a member of the Earthen Bison Clan of the Omaha Tribe where he is known by the name "Bison Mane.” https://www.sacredseed.org/ He is author of: ‘Rediscovering Turtle Island: A First Peoples’ Account of the Sacred Geography of America

Top Image: A painting of Cahokia Mounds State Historic site by William R. Iseminger. Source: William R. Iseminger

By Taylor Keen

 
Taylor Keen's picture

Taylor Keen

Taylor Keen is a senior lecturer in the Heider College of Business Administration at Creighton University. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and two master’s degrees from Harvard University and has served as a Fellow in the Harvard... Read More

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