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Erased history markers at St. Louis intersections cite Native American displacement

A sign at the intersection of Cherokee Street and Tennessee Avenue offers information about the seven tribes indigenous to present-day Tennessee who the U.S. government moved westward in the 19th century, sometimes forcibly.
Jon Gitchoff
A sign at the intersection of Cherokee Street and Tennessee Avenue offers information about the seven tribes indigenous to present-day Tennessee that the U.S. government moved west in the 19th century, sometimes forcibly.

Public-art nonprofit Counterpublic is midway through a project meant to highlight some of the troubling U.S. history encoded into the St. Louis street map.

In at least 11 locations in south St. Louis, streets named for Native American peoples intersect with streets named for U.S. states from which white settlers displaced them, often forcibly.

The Counterpublic project places “erased history markers” at such crossroads.

“The inevitability of naming streets after states and Native nations is that you create this index of dispossession,” said James McAnally, Counterpublic’s founder and executive director. “The intersections tell a story, but it’s a story that’s maybe invisible to everyday St. Louis. Even if you live on the street, maybe you’re not thinking about what it means to live at these intersections that really tell a story of both St. Louis and the development of the United States.”

After decades of federal efforts to remove Native Americans from their land, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830. The legislation gave him the authority to offer land west of the Mississippi River to Native people willing to migrate. But U.S. authorities regularly failed to fulfill the terms of treaties signed by Native nations that agreed to move and forcibly removed an estimated 60,000 people. Thousands of Native Americans died during forced marches west.

Counterpublic has placed "erased history marker" near five intersections, with plans to add six more.
Jon Gitchoff
Counterpublic has placed "erased history marker" near five intersections, with plans to add six more.

Risa Puleo, a guest curator who organized part of Counterpublic’s triennial exhibition last year, conceived of the “11 Intersections” project. She was inspired by the work of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a Native American artist who sometimes creates maps of the United States that juxtapose contemporary place names with the Native people who once predominated there.

One such piece, “State Names Map: Cahokia,” was part of Counterpublic 2023 and has since been acquired by the St. Louis Art Museum. An exhibition of Smith’s work is on view there through Nov. 10.

“Do the people that live on the corner of Missouri Avenue and Osage Street recognize or know the history by which the Osage people were displaced from Missouri? That intersection spoke so loudly to me about a history of dispossession. It’s a way that this history is embedded in the names of the streets,” Puleo said.

The marker at the corner of Cherokee Street and Tennessee Avenue reads, in part: “The state of Tennessee takes its name from a Cherokee village called Tanasi, once located in what is now the southeastern corner of the state. … Only two-thirds of the approximately 15,000 Cherokee people who walked 5,000 miles across Tennessee from Cherokee territories in North Carolina to Georgia, Tennessee, and Albabama survived the brutal weather conditions and difficult journey.”

The signs include QR codes that link to materials about the current-day status of Native tribes and the treaty terms they were subjected to.

Unfinished business

Counterpublic has been working directly with the Osage Nation over the past year, raising funds to help purchase all of Sugarloaf Mound, the oldest human-made structure in what is now St. Louis. Osage Nation purchased much of the site in 2009, but there are still two privately owned houses built into the ancient mound.

Counterpublic leaders said they have been having discussions with the property owners and hope to reach agreements soon.

The public-art group originally intended to place the intersection markers on street signs, but city officials pointed it toward approaching property owners of adjacent buildings instead.

Homeowner Jessie Martinez allowed a sign on her property near one intersection.

“I would love for the people who are walking to read the sign realize the history that’s on this land, and that somehow makes them move involved in the community that is here,” she said.

Counterpublic organizers are still in talks with property owners near six intersections they’ve identified as good spots for historical markers.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.