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.  

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