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Bost, Durbin Renew Push To Make Cahokia Mounds A National Park

Monks Mound at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in February 2019.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Monks Mound at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in February 2019. Bills by Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, would establish a national park for this mound and many others built by the Mississippians 1,000 years ago.

Two members of Illinois’ congressional delegation have reintroduced measures to make Cahokia Mounds part of a new national park.

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, filed the legislation last week.

The bills would establish the Cahokia Mounds and Mississippian Culture National Historic Park, to be managed by the National Park Service along with state and local agencies. It would include Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Sugarloaf Mound in St. Louis and other ancient mounds in St. Clair, Madison and Monroe counties.

“This is personal,” Durbin said. “I can remember as a little kid, going out with my parents and scrambling up and down Cahokia Mounds and taking trips there as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout over the years.”

It wasn’t until much later that Durbin learned how historically significant the ancient mounds dotting the St. Louis region and Southern Illinois were, he said.

“That area was really, some can argue, the centerpiece of Native American culture for centuries,” Durbin said.

The earthen mounds were built by Mississippians more than 1,000 years ago. Cahokia Mounds, already a 2,200-acre state historic site with 70 mounds, has been called “America’s First City,” where people lived, worked and worshipped.

“They really were the center of the spiritual life and culture of those civilizations,” Durbin said. “There is significance and importance that most people don’t appreciate.”

The Mississippians also built “satellite” mounds that stretched through the region, even ones across the Mississippi River. Researchers estimate 100,000 people lived at Cahokia at its peak around the year 1200, which Durbin said rivaled the population of European centers such as London at the time.

Beyond the St. Louis region this cultural history is relatively unknown, but a national park would help change that by elevating the culture of those who built some of the oldest landmarks in the country, said Bost, whose district includes portions of the proposed park.

“A national park status will be advertised at a level that not only do the people of this nation know about it but every nation in the world will know about it,” he said.

This is the second time Congress will consider the national park designation. Bostfirst introduced the legislation in 2019.

“Sometimes getting that act of Congress done, even if it is such a positive piece of legislation as this, it does take a while,” Bost said.

The bipartisan legislation has broader support this time since there is a companion bill in the Senate, he said.

Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, is a co-sponsor on the House legislation, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, is one for the Senate bill.

The designation would also bring funding to the region for city and state agencies to interpret other mound locations in the bi-state region, said Laura Lyon, a vice president of the Heartlands Conservancy.

“It’s about establishing the interpretation of the Mississippian culture as it was,” she said. “Being able to move through contemporary communities to learn and protect those of the indigenous landscape.”

The Belleville-based conservancy has been leading the push to establish Cahokia Mounds as a national park for 10 years, but the effort has had interest from locals and Native American tribes for much longer, Lyon said.

A national park designation would further protect and preserve the sacred ground of 11 indigenous tribes with ancestral links to the mounds.

Scott BigHorse, an Osage Nation congressman, could not immediately be reached for comment about the proposal, which Native American tribes have supported in the past.

The initial designation would almost exclusively include mounds that are on public land — an exception being Sugarloaf Mound in St. Louis, which is owned by the Osage Nation, she said. The park status would allow a pathway for sites on private land to participate if the land owners wish to, Lyon said.

“It allows us to add further sites or to grow the boundary of each individual site as new archaeological resources are discovered and need further protection,” she said. “We recognized other satellite mound complexes that were part of greater Cahokia that were important in the system of food, water and trade within the larger region.”

Lyon added that a national park would also bolster tourism in the Metro East, especially from visitors to the Gateway Arch National Park.

Other members of the Heartlands Conservancy are hopeful the bill will become law during this congressional session but acknowledge it still has a long way to go.

“That all of the legislators got together and presented companion bills together speaks to their commitment and how important this full effort is,” said Heartlands President and CEO Mary Vandevord. “I feel like we have a movement behind us now, and there is a lot more awareness.”

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.