St. Louis’s Native Past Comes Alive

Eric Pinto braiding sweetgrass

Eric Pinto braiding sweetgrass



The St. Louis Anthology opens with a quote: “St. Louis is on indigenous land. This land is the traditional, unceded homelands of the Illini Confederacy: the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria, and Tamaroa tribes; and also the Osage and Miami. Through this land also passed the Cherokee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, and Shawnee, among others, during forced removals.”

How do I know nothing of those people?  Teenage Gus Chouteau picking out a nice spot by the river—that’s as far back as my history goes. One exception: I do sometimes stand atop Monk’s Mound and wonder what happened to the Mississippians, a people as wondrous and remote to me as the pyramid-builders. But that list—all those homelands beneath our feet, and all the people who were killed or shoved elsewhere, their lifeways erased—is not engraved in my soul. What remains of their presence here?

Tangible stuff, mounds, and petroglyphs—the few that have not been destroyed. Buried ancestors—those whose graves have not been smashed in order to erect a Wal-Mart. But the elegance of Native culture disappeared with its people. Hunting for signs feels like hearing a celebrity once lived in my house and crawling around the attic in the hope of finding a stray bauble or a torn scrap from a love letter. Native Americans did not burden themselves with a lot of sparkly baubles or maudlin mementos. They lived more lightly on the land, carried what mattered inside them.

Eric Pinto, assistant director of the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies at Washington University’s Brown School, has both Choctaw (Chahta) and Zuni (A:shiwi) blood in his veins. “I never liked the wording, but they used to say Choctaw was one of the five ‘civilized’ tribes, because they assimilated more easily to the dominant American culture,” he remarks. “The Zuni retained a lot of their traditional culture and knowledge.” Making them less civilized? Or proving that what we define as “civilized” is opportunistic, expedient, and carefully constructed.

If this region were still infused with, say, traditional Osage (Wahzhazhe) spirituality, then simply writing this post would be a sacred act. So would making oatmeal earlier this morning, walking the dog, and planting fall bulbs in the garden. Those bulbs, like the oatmeal and the dog and you and me, are all part of Wah-kon-tah, the spirit that oversees the universe. Even in the rave of bees dancing on the sedum, there is spirit, soul, that mysterious animating force.

Pinto was born and raised in secular St. Louis, where the dividing line was Black and White, but he had a different heritage to tap into. “Being Native definitely changed me,” he says. “I connect with the environment, with plants and animals on a deeper level. If I were detached from my Native side, I would look at them as separate beings. With the Native perception, they are our relatives. That made me recognize the significance of life. It’s easy for people to kill a spider, but for me—what kind of spider is it? What role does it play? Why would I want to perceive it as a threat?”

After we talk, I read the Osage “Spider Story,” in which “the spiders, honeybees, yellow jackets, and mud daubers: these insects still speak—a language that is older than humans. The buffalo, elk, wolf, coyote—they still talk too. It’s we, the people, who have forgotten how to listen.”

Pinto grew up hearing stories about the Zuni reservation and his father’s experiences there. He was given a pair of Choctaw stickball sticks to protect Pearl River’s goal post during the Choctaw World Series Stickball championship game. (They missed victory by a single point.) Yet he can enroll in neither nation. He is, on his father’s side, 25 percent Choctaw and 25 percent Zuni. That is not enough to enroll in the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Nation, as his father did, and because his father chose Choctaw, he is ineligible to enroll as Zuni. As a Native American, Pinto is invisible—the most common fate of his people.

Enrollment sounds like cultural preservation but in reality has more to do with the government trying to recover Native lands, he explains. “A tribe has to have enrolled members. There have been instances where the government has looked at a tribe and said, ‘They are terminated because there are no longer people who can be enrolled in the tribe. Once the federal government no longer recognizes a Native or Tribal Nation, the lands are subject to being purchased by non-Native people. It’s always been an objective to eliminate Native people, Native practices, Native knowledge, and take over the land.”

Only in recent years, with the environment collapsing, is there a tug in the other direction, as people who are not Native turn to Native ways of healing the land, Native uses of wild plants for food or medicine. “The big hype now is pawpaw fruit,” Pinto says with a grin. “Suddenly a hot item. But people are beginning to see plants and animals as our kin, because they are taking care of us.”

Why do we know so little about our Native past, I ask, wanting to share in that worldview at least by virtue of geography if not blood. He has told me about the many tribes who traveled toward St. Louis in the Late Woodland Period; the Ponca (Panka) who settled near what are now Osage and Gasconade counties in Missouri; the Omaha (Umonho) who settled for a time at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi; the Ioway (Bah-Kho-Je) who settled along the state’s Grand and Platte rivers; the Missouria, who banded with the Otoe during a time of disease and hardship; the Illini (Illiniwek) who had more than 10,000 members spread across the central Mississippi River Valley until European guns and smallpox reduced them to a single village of 300 in the 1830s; the Peoria (Peouaroua), last remaining tribe of the Illini, who were relocated here by the Treaty of Edwardsville, then shoved onward to Kansas and finally Oklahoma….

I can tell you a lot about the French and Spanish rule of St. Louis, the enslaved Blacks and the abolition movement, the waves of Irish and German immigration, the refugees from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. How can I be so clueless about the people who were here at the start?

“Because of the elimination of Native people and cultural knowledge and traditions,” Pinto says, his voice calm and resigned. “And because of the idea that these were nomadic, primitive people who today are ‘people of the past.’” A 2015 study found that almost 90 percent of state-mandated education about Native history places Native culture in a pre-1900s context. The photographs are sepia, the expressions stoic and sad-eyed. The leading figures kids learn about are Chief Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanke), Chief Crazy Horse (Tasunke-Witko), and the shaman Geronimo (Goyahkla). “We are not relics,” notes Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear. Yet only now is legislation pending in Congress to provide states with more comprehensive, accurate education about the nations who—“settled” is not the right word. Who first lived here, without trying to tame or subdue.

Pinto figures those in charge keep contemporary Native culture invisible, relegate it to the distant past, and constrain what is taught because they “want to hide the dirtiness of it,” slant the story of how America became great in their own ancestors’ direction. “The U.S. Constitution was derived from the Iroquois [Haudenosaunee] Confederacy,” he points out, and surreptitiously, I jot a note. How did I not know that?

The Iroquois Confederacy “is the oldest living participatory democracy on earth,” I read. “In 1988”—it took that long—“the U.S. Senate paid tribute with a resolution that said, ‘The confederation of the original thirteen colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”

Tiny details, like the separation of power into different branches of government; the ban on people holding office in different branches of government at the same time; the processes to remove leaders; the legislative powers vested in Congress; the power of its members to declare war. Even the bundle of thirteen arrows clutched in the eagle’s talons in the nation’s Great Seal came from an Iroquois metaphor that said many arrows could not be broken as easily as one.

The burning issues for Native Americans today—beyond being invisible and relegated to the nineteenth century—are environmental justice and food sovereignty. Cultural erasure, still. Violence: there are so many missing and murdered indigenous women in North America that they have their own acronym: MMIW. Killers of the Flower Moon, first David Grann’s amazing book and now the film, highlights what is only a sliver of the contemporary injustices.

Last month, the Buder Center held a vigil for Truth and Reconciliation Day, recognizing survivors and victims of the boarding schools designed to separate Native children from their families and their culture. Next month’s Hunt Fish Gather (Ganohalidasdi Agwasudi Gatlisodi) program, complete with a VIP dinner and Native chef demonstration, is already sold out. People are trying to learn, trying to remember.

A few pages into The St. Louis Anthology is a poem, “blue thunder, red thunder,” by Galen Gritts. “…we smiled at your/coming and wondered at your companionship and became/Baptists and methodists—joining hope to hope,” he writes. “…you came from beyond the air and earth and pitted/despair to death and forsook the ways of your fathers…. our name/was not great nor is it now spoken, we have passed to gray/following the lost sun while you thrash wildly in your darkness.”

Missouri’s rich early history was wiped out deliberately. After the Indian Removal Act, indigenous people were forbidden to live here and forcibly removed to Indian Territory. What if none of that had happened? If the Osage had stayed, the owl that hoots out my window on clear October nights would be a reminder of death and transition. The eagle that soars over our park’s lake would symbolize not just reflexive nationalism but courage, and the foresight we continue to lack. The young people feeling hopeless, anxious, and sad would know that “everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, every person a mission.” They would know, too, that “it does not require many words to speak the truth.”

And that silence and lies can end.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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