On our trip we saw a number of things built by the original inhabitants of this continent. In reverse chronological order they were:
1. Sequoyah’s Cabin, Sallisaw, Okla. Sequoyah (a.k.a. George Gist, c. 1770-1843) is famous for having invented a syllabary for the Cherokee language, which was widely adopted and still in use today. His birthplace in Vonore, Tenn., is now a museum. He moved out to Arkansaw Territory some ten years before the Trail of Tears, as he could see the writing on the wall and believed that the future of the Cherokee lay out west. There he built a cabin, which was completely enclosed by a stone building by the WPA in the 1930s in order to preserve it. I did not know that he died in Mexico, on a quest to find more Cherokee who he believed had moved there during the time of the Indian removal.
Jerry Dobbs, manager of the facility, taught us about Sequoyah’s syllabary, and rendered our names in it.
2. Mound sites in Spiro, Okla. (top) and Moundville, Ala. (bottom). These ones were built by the Mississippian people of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (roughly 1000-1500); only Cahokia (Ill.) and Etowah (Ga.) rival them in importance. The Spiro site suffered greatly from looters in the 1930s, and the current Archaeological Center probably needs an injection of cash, but we greatly enjoyed chatting with the Center’s director, Dennis Peterson, who was very knowledgeable about Spiro, the SECC, and the rise of civilizations in general (and their fall: the SECC was largely a victim of a changing climate in the late Middle Ages). He told us about Moundville, so of course we stopped there on our way home. This one is run by the nearby University of Alabama, and is apparently well-funded – one of the WPA-era buildings at the site has recently had an addition put on it, and features displays of the artifacts unearthed at the site, as well as dioramas describing social organization and funerary customs of the Mississippians. The site itself is quite spectacular – when you’re there, you can really get the sense that this was a thriving city (none of my photographs can quite do it justice).
3. Poverty Point, near Pioneer, Louisiana. This is a State Historic Site, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it’s not Mississippian, or even Woodland, but Archaic, i.e. it was built during the second millennium BC, by a hunter-gatherer people. It consists of a large semi-circle of six earthen ridges, which may have supported houses; at the apex of the semi-circle is a quite large earthen mound known as the Bird Mound (pictured). Unfortunately, the semi-circle is rather hard to make out these days, because throughout the nineteenth century this was a plantation, and regularly plowed to grow cotton! And to think people used to do this…