Lore or Lie?

6 03 2013

The Osage Nation is staking a claim to a St. Louis prehistoric landmark. But a renegade has reservations about his tribe’s right to the land.

by Bill Newmann

Mayor Slay and Jim Gray in 2004

Mayor Slay and Jim Gray in 2004

Clinging to the Mississippi River bluffs, the bungalow atop Sugarloaf Mound has lain vacant for three years, its boarded windows staring out across Ohio Avenue at a hill littered with debris from Interstate 55. Truck drivers roll down the street and commuters accelerate up the entrance ramp.

None of them seem to notice the ancient wonder.

Unknown to most St. Louisans, Sugarloaf Mound is a portal to the prehistoric past, when dozens of earthen mounds stood within the current city limits. Native civilizations that vanished centuries ago built these landmarks, earning the Gateway City its previous title – Mound City. Nevertheless, by the time of the 1904 World’s Fair, the mounds had been destroyed by urban expansion. Sugarloaf, the last mound standing, survived mainly due to its relative isolation.

When the Osage Nation – a sovereign Native American tribe based in Oklahoma – bought a piece of Sugarloaf for nearly a quarter million dollars in 2009, the St. Louis media praised the purchase as a preservation victory. But the tribe itself remains divided over the issue, including skeptics who continue to question the deal and the well-connected players who worked behind the scenes to put it together.  

Carnahan and Gray at Sugarloaf after the sale

Gray and Carnahan at Sugarloaf after the sale

Despite the discord, a bus-load of tribal members is scheduled to visit Sugarloaf this month as part of a tour that touts the Osage as descendants of the mound builders.

The effort to turn the mound into a roadside attraction was already in the works in late 2008, when one of the mound’s parcels went on the market. Then-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan quietly alerted a group of organizations as well as the Osage Nation of the sale to secure the land as part of a larger plan. As his next move, he recruited anthropologist Andrea A. Hunter to find evidence that her tribe descended from Sugarloaf’s builders. After being contacted, Hunter left her job at Northern Arizona University to establish the Osage Historic Preservation Office at the tribe’s headquarters in Oklahoma.

Hunter’s new job involved researching alleged ancestral links to the mound builders, which she presented to the Osage Nation Congress to persuade them to buy Sugarloaf.

But Osage Congressman William “Kugee” Supernaw III is not sold on the idea. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “there’s no real evidence that it was [of] Osage origin.”  

Osage tribal congressman William "Kugee" Supernaw III

Osage tribal congressman William “Kugee” Supernaw III

Accordingly, the council recessed in June 2009 without appropriating any funds to acquire the tract.

The tribal legislature’s indecision stopped the deal – but not for long.

The next month, then-Principal Chief Jim Gray bypassed the congress and bought the plot without its approval, using $235,000 of tribal money earmarked for other purposes. The parcel’s appraised value is $54,500, according to St. Louis city assessor’s records.

Gray’s career has included stints in publishing, public relations and construction. In 2009, while leader of the Osage, he testified on behalf of a Native American alternative energy consortium before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. Gray became the youngest chief in Osage history in 2002, and for eight years led the tribe through a series of changes, including the expansion of its Oklahoma-based gambling empire, as well as the founding of Hunter’s historic preservation office. The former chief is also no stranger to St. Louis, having visited here as early as 2004, when he attended a ceremony to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase with other dignitaries. Photos taken at that time show him in the company of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. 

Buying a slice of Sugarloaf creates a paper trail that helps legitimize Hunter’s ancestral claims. To buttress those claims, her office is working on a plan to demolish the bungalow atop the mound and erect an Osage-heritage interpretive center nearby.

The Osage Nation's bungalow

The Osage Nation’s bungalow

But there’s one hitch.

Many tribal members do not support the plan and feel that their money would be better spent closer to home. On top of that, they cannot get a satisfactory explanation as to why their tribe entered the pact.

“We had money we thought was set aside to purchase office buildings in and around Pawhuska,” says Supernaw, referring to the tribe’s headquarters city. “Instead, they took that money without any consultation with the congress and bought this mound over in Missouri.”

In Supernaw’s opinion, Hunter also hoodwinked the congress by presenting photos that do not reveal the house or roads on Sugarloaf. He says the congress thought the mound was unmarred until an Osage who lives in St. Louis got wind of the deal and sent them other photos.

Many Osages think Hunter’s research does not stand up to scrutiny any better than the deal. One artifact she uses to tie the tribe to the ancient architects is a statuette that depicts a kneeling person with what Hunter says resembles an Osage medicine bundle.

Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office propaganda

Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office propaganda

“It could also resemble a log or a roll of toilet paper,”  says Supernaw. 

Efforts to verify other aspects of her research were unsuccessful, he says. Experts have told him that there is no documentation linking his tribe to Sugarloaf. After providing some of Hunter’s work to a prominent DNA researcher at the University of Utah he was told Hunter’s terminology was indecipherable and her conclusions were nonsense.

Written records of the Osage go back to 1673, when Europeans first mapped the area, recording the tribe in western Missouri. “We do know that Osages came through that area, lived in that area,” says Supernaw, but “all the evidence that anyone’s ever been able to come up with is that they came long after the mounds had been abandoned by the people that built them.” 

Hunter declined to comment, directing media requests to the tribe’s executive office. Repeated attempts to reach anyone for comment at the tribal offices were unsuccessful.

Sugarloaf is a keystone in the Mounds Heritage Trail, a planned recreational path that is part of a Bi-state network. In league with Carnahan, three groups spearheading the trail project urged the Osage Nation to buy the parcel in 2009: the Great Rivers Greenway District, the HeartLands Conservancy, and the Confluence Partnership. Their common mission is to cobble together a system linking area parks. These agencies make land deals under the radar all across the area and Hunter is their ally.

Sugarloaf in 1950 -- taken from a nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places

Sugarloaf in 1950 — taken from a nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places

The Confluence Partnership, an umbrella group, hatched the concept of the mounds trail. Great Rivers Greenway, a Metropolitan Park and Recreation District, has taken over the Missouri side of the trail while the non-profit HeartLands Conservancy heads the Illinois segment.

The Osage and the park district face one obstacle in putting their plans into action: Sugarloaf’s two other parcels have yet to be acquired. “That could be a problem,” says Great River Greenway’s project manager Carey Bundy.

Ed Weilbacher of the HeartLands Conservancy agrees with Bundy, but he surmises there is a possible fix. “There is some kind of tacit agreement that the Osage has an option to purchase when those private individuals are ready to sell,” he says.

Carnahan left office earlier this year and could not be reached for comment. Gray has moved on too, and could not be tracked down.

But Hunter’s historic preservation team has not forgotten about the mound or St. Louis. They are advising Great Rivers Greenway on the Arch grounds improvements, among other area projects.

On March 18, with spring’s approach, Osage tourists will step off a bus on Ohio Avenue in South St. Louis as part of a week-long tour. It is a pilgrimage of sorts. Their itinerary includes trips to Cahokia Mounds in nearby Illinois and, of course, Sugarloaf Mound. The tribes-people will be searching for clues to their past. It is unclear what they will find.

A view of Sugarloaf's levels

A view of Sugarloaf’s levels

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5 responses

6 03 2013
Bill McClellan

That’s very good stuff. I might drive out and take a look at it. If I write anything — and I doubt I will — I will certianly give all credit to Bill Newmann and the Journal of Decomposition.

6 03 2013
Journal of Decomposition

Bill, this is Bill. Thank you. It is worth the drive.

6 03 2013
Doug Moore

Bill – Nice post. Very interesting. Can I give you a call? We haven’t written about this in a few years and I’d like to get your take on a couple of things.

Here is my phone – 314-565-5472.

6 03 2013
Journal of Decomposition

Thanks, Doug, and absolutely. My phone is 314-440-5375. Let’s talk.

19 03 2013
Indian Territory | Journal of Decomposition

[…] to Sugarloaf and the Mississippi River Valley mound builders are a source of heated controversy [Lore or Lie?, DOD, March 6]. The problem is that the dozens of local mounds were constructed hundreds of years […]

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