© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

St. Louis was once Mound City. Its Native American residents still feel erased

Galen Gritts, a 70-year-old member of the Cherokee Nation
Brent Jones
St. Louis Public Radio
The Big Mound Monument, center bottom, is pictured with trash scattered around it on Thursday next to Interstate 70 and the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge in north downtown St. Louis.

A member of the Cherokee Nation, Galen Gritts is proud to be an elder in St. Louis. He was born and raised in the area and graduated from University of Missouri-St. Louis with a history degree.

When he was young, it was Gritts’ goal to stay put and grow old in St. Louis. Now, he speaks regularly at events around the city about Cherokee culture and the legacy of Missouri’s first people — the Osage Nation, Peoria Tribe and Otoe Missouria Tribe.

Gritts’ lessons help non-Natives understand the Native American community as people of the present and not the past. Many non-Natives think of the Cherokee Nation and other Native American tribal nations in a romanticized, outdated context, Gritts said.

“People still think we live in teepees, that we all wear headdresses, when that’s never been the case for Cherokee people and some of the tribes of Missouri,” he said.

Gritts grew up even questioning what it meant to be Cherokee because he said St. Louis schools taught little about Indigenous history and heritage. At the same time, many monuments are in highly developed or abandoned spaces.

At the corner of Mound and 4th Street near North Riverfront, a monument to Big Moundstands under the I-70 bridge amid trash, the smell of burning tires, graffiti, industrial sites and abandoned factories.

A daguerreotype of the "The Big Mound" is pictured circa 1854 on St. Louis' Fifth and Mound Streets.
Thomas M. Easterly
Missouri History Museum Archives
A daguerreotype of the "The Big Mound" is pictured circa 1854 at St. Louis' Fifth and Mound streets.

The site memorializes the largest of the dozens of American Indian burial and ceremonial mounds that used to be scattered throughout the city.

“A lot of the Native plaques and memorials tend to be in out-of-the-way remote areas even in the city,” Gritts said. “So when I say remote, that might be beneath an underpass with no reason for people to be walking there.”

For years, Gritts hunted for a burial plaque to the Odawa Chief Pontiac — a war chief who led the largest alliance of Native American tribes against the British in the mid-18th century, according to the memorial.

He found it bolted to a parking garage off South Broadway and Walnut Street downtown. Gritts said it looks like a bank safety deposit box.

“There’s no reason for anyone to stop here and spot this, even though Ballpark Village is right there, and the Arch is just behind that hotel,” he said as he pointed to the top of the Gateway Arch.

The Arch, which is three blocks from Pontiac’s memorial, is a reminder for Gritts of the history that isn't taught in schools. He calls this the hidden history of America because often-painful parts of U.S. history are overlooked.

"The dominant culture sees the Arch as the Gateway to the West, but no one talks about how Native Americans had bounties placed on them after Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase," Gritts said.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Galen Gritts, a 70-year-old member of the Cherokee Nation from Affton, on Tuesday at the site of the Pontiac Memorial affixed to a parking garage in downtown St. Louis. “A lot of the Native plaques and memorials tend to be in out-of-the-way remote areas even in the city,” Gritts said. “So when I say remote, that might be beneath an underpass with no reason for people to be walking there.”

The National Park reminds Gritts of how westward expansion forced people from the Osage Nation, Otoe Missouria, Peoria Tribe and other tribal nations out of the region. Even the Cherokee Nation passed through the region during the forced removal on the Trail of Tears, said Missouri Humanities archaeologist Erin Whitson.

“About the same time the Cherokee were coming through, Missouri made it illegal for Native people to live in the state,” Whitson said.

In 1838, the Missouri General Assembly enacted a law that prohibited most relations between white people and Native Americans. It was repealed in 1909.

During the span of 71 years, most of the mounds left by Indigenous people from centuries earlier — which led to St. Louis being dubbed Mound City — were destroyed to make way for urban development. Some of these mounds contained ancestors of the Osage Nation and other tribes, said Osage Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Andrea Hunter.

“Osage history, culture and where the nation lives today is not taught in most public or private schools,” said Sarah O’Donnell of the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office based on the tribe's outreach work. “This information is kind of not easily accessible, especially in Missouri.”

For Dail Chambers, a Black and Mississippi Choctaw artist and urban farmer living in the Ville neighborhood, the region is very colonized, which has made it difficult for community members to connect with each other. But that doesn’t stop Chambers from elevating Choctaw culture.

Dail Chambers, land steward and artist, 40, on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, at Coahoma Orchards in north St. Louis. Coahoma Orchards is an urban orchard dedicated to the cross cultural heritage of native and African people.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dail Chambers, land steward and artist, 40, on Tuesday at Coahoma Orchards in north St. Louis. Coahoma Orchards is an urban orchard dedicated to the cross-cultural heritage of Native and African people.

At her urban farm and orchard named Coahoma, after the county in Mississippi, she grows traditional foods such as chokeberry, pawpaw and white pumpkins.

She uses what she grows to help address food insecurity in the Ville while helping her neighbors — some of who are descended from Afro-Choctaw families that migrated from Coahoma County to north St. Louis — connect to Choctaw identity.

“I've been planting native flowers and native trees, native shrubs and native plants. And that is an educational opportunity for everyone,” said Chambers. “I think that's the most important work that has anything to do with much besides place in conversation and true connection.”

The Indigenous community in St. Louis is working to create spaces where all people can learn about Native identity in the region.

Galen Gritts is a founding member of the group Alliance for Native Programs and Initiatives, which helps St. Louis institutions coordinate projects and events that center Indigenous people, culture and history.

Gritts also lectures with the State Historical Society of Missouri. The Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies often invites Gritts to give prayer before events and ceremonies like the center's annual Pow Wow and traditional food demonstration called Hunt, Fish, Gather.

“I think if we elevate what we know about Native Americans, it does not denigrate the dominant culture or white people. It’s the truth, and the truth can set us all free,” said Gritts.

Last year, Tower Grove Park partnered with the Osage Nation to revive a stream on the east end of the park that was significant to the Osage when they lived in St. Louis. Soon, Tower Grove Park will have interpretations from the Osage Nation on the flora and fauna there.

To help teachers facilitate lessons about Missouri's first people, the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office has education and outreach opportunities for Missouri teachers, said O'Donnell.

"We put together a traveling trunk that is free for any Missouri educator to check out and use as an educational tool in their classrooms," she said.

This is one step toward giving St. Louisans more opportunities to get to know the Native communities that call this region home. But it’s only one small step, observers say, toward helping non-Native people appreciate the full legacy of Indigenous people in the region.

Britny Cordera is a poet and journalist based in St. Louis and is currently serving as a newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio.