Cahokia Mounds reflect ancient Osage culture, lifeways

Roseanne McKee
Birger figurine found in the Cahokia area in St. Louis, Mo., carved from Missouri flintclay depicts a kneling woman hoeing into a snake, which splits and becomes squash that grow up the woman’s back. The woman represents mother earth. She and the snake symbolize fertility, life forces and the lower world. According to the history panel, “Cahokians believed she was the creator of all vegetation, and that she had powers of rebirth and control over the weather.” Roseanne McKee/Examiner-Enterprise

Recently, I visited the Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis, Mo., the largest earthen monument in the Americas with links to the Osage Tribe of Indians, whose sovereign nation is headquartered in Pawhuska.

According to an article entitled “Osage Cultural History” by Dr. Andrea Hunter, published on the Osage Nation website (, “[d]uring the latter part of the Late Woodland (A.D. 900) and Emergent Mississippian, (A.D. 1000) periods, larger groups of the Dhegiha Siouan tribes focused their settlement strategy in the Cahokia/St. Louis area. … Those who would later become the Osage were the last remaining Dhegiha Siouan tribe in the Cahokia/St. Louis area.”

A panel about the late Charles Arthur Pratt (1944-2015) was on display at the Museum. The panel included a photo of Charles Pratt, an Osage Elder, wearing regalia. The panel stated that Pratt had been the Hominy Drum Keeper in the Osage Hominy Village in the 1960s, who never forgot his obligations to his people. Pratt was a college graduate and scholar of both Dhegihan language and culture.

“Charles epitomized the Hominy community. After all, they were the full bloods. … they were always eager to save their great heritage as well as being generous in sharing with others,” the panel said.

I was fortunate to have met Pratt at a traditional Osage dinner at his own camp, during the In-Lonshka Dances in Hominy in 2014, a year before he passed. My friend Mark Simms, a retired Osage Congressman, and his wife, Linda Simms, took me to the dinner.

What I learned at the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center and Museum was that up to 20,000 people lived at Cahokia over 2,200 acres.

While the settlement originally began more than 12,000 years ago, 1,000 years ago the culture evolved into what is known as the Mississippians. At that time, the residents built various types of mounds, plazas and a unique wooden sundial now called Woodhenge. Regarding the mounds themselves, some were flat-top — where temples and other structures were built. Others, called ridge-top mounds, marked the community’s boundaries. And, there were burial mounds.

However, the tallest, most prominent, mound was the location of the chief’s home, where a sacred fire was kept burning, the narrator said.

It is interesting to note that the practice of keeping a sacred fire burning was continued by the Osage.

In the book “Osage Life & Legends” by Robert Liebert, he wrote that the fireplace served as light, warmth, and … any time that the People were gathered around the fireplace was a time of communion; for the fire was symbolic of the divine spark of life and the power that resided within the Sun. In the lodges of the Grand Chiefs [sacred fires] burned eternally, as they had in the temples of the Ancient Ones that erected the great earthen mounds.”

According to the video presentation at the center, the chief was said to have ruled the earth and spoken to the sky.

The chief’s “wealth was immeasurable, his wisdom profound, his authority unquestionable. The chief was responsible for maintaining balance between the spiritual forces of the upper world and the low world. … and for maintaining order and harmony among the people,” the video narrator said.

“Service rendered to him was as to the gods. With his wisest advisors, the chief directed construction of the great mound, the site of his temple. For the thousands of laborers, building the mound was an act of loyalty on faith. Building it in stages, they dug the earth with stone hoes and carried [the earth] in woven baskets 50-60 pounds at a time, 15 million times over a 300-year period,” the narrator said.

The community was “the seat of power, vitality, wealth and security. It prevailed for several hundred years. … Each area had a function. There were enormous plazas for games, ceremonies and great gatherings. There were miles of stockade wall protecting the central ceremonial area,” the narrator said.

The community was so large that individuals specialized in tasks such as toolmaking, farming and basket weaving. Goods and services were exchanged and the population became interdependent.

The people were able to grow a surplus of corn so it could be saved for years when crops were poor, the narrator explained. “With a steady food supply, great numbers of people could make Cahokia their permanent home.”

This surplus in crops allowed the chief to engage in trade with other tribes.

“The leader of the community could trade corn for rare goods such as copper or sea shells. Mississippian communities traded in this way over a network that spanned thousands of miles from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico — from the Atlantic ocean to the Ozarks,” the narrator said.

Read next week’s column about archaeological digs at Cahokia.