As Angelia Griffin delved into her family’s Native American ancestry in recent years, she developed a deeper respect for the cultural importance of Cahokia Mounds.
“I used to come here as a child when I was in school, on a field trip,’’ said the Belleville resident, who visited the state historic site on a recent Saturday. “I’m looking at it in a different light.’’
Cahokia Mounds protects more than 70 mounds built by the ancient Mississippians 1,000 years ago, but it has never received the recognition it deserves as one of the world’s most significant cultural sites, Griffin said.
Native American tribes that trace their ancestry to the Mississippians say increased awareness is one of the reasons they support congressional legislation to make Cahokia Mounds a national park. The designation would elevate the status of the park, bringing additional resources and stronger protections.
“The more people know about it, I believe the more people will be interested in helping to preserve it,’’ Griffin said.
In July, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bost of Murphysboro and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin introduced companion bills in both houses to create the Cahokia Mounds and Mississippian Culture National Historic Park.
In addition to the 2,200-acre Cahokia Mounds, the park would include ancient mounds in St. Clair, Monroe and Madison counties in Illinois and Sugarloaf Mound in St. Louis. Sugarloaf is the only mound left in the city.
The legislation would create a partnership between the National Park Service and state and local entities to manage the park. Illinois would retain ownership of Cahokia Mounds.
‘We have had a voice’
The Osage Nation is one of 11 Native American tribes with ancestral links to Cahokia Mounds that have worked with researchers studying the feasibility of making the ancient mounds a national park.
In 2009, the Osage Nation bought Sugarloaf Mound. The tribe has been raising money for its preservation.
“I want my grandchildren and their children to be able to go up there,’’ said Scott BigHorse, 63, a spokesman for the tribe in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. “And when they go back and they read some of the things that I have written down throughout my lifetime, I want them to be able to go to that spot and see what I see.”
The federal protections that come with national park status would better ensure the future of the surviving mounds, BigHorse said. They would also be a deterrent for souvenir hunters who desecrate his tribe’s sacred lands.
“How would you like it,” he said, “if I got a group of my people, and we went to your grandmother’s cemetery and we dug her up and we took her jewelry and just left her laying there? How would you feel?”
The tribes no longer live near the ancient mounds. Starting in 1830, the federal government forced them to relocate to the Indian Territory — now Oklahoma.
But they have been involved in the national park discussion — something that doesn’t always happen, said Logan Pappenfort, second chief of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. He directs the tribe’s historic preservation efforts.
Pappenfort has worked for several years with the HeartLands Conservancy, the Belleville nonprofit that produced the national parks study. He credits HeartLands for reaching out to Native American tribes.
“We have had a voice, which is something that you cannot always say as a tribe, unfortunately,” he said.
For Pappenfort, visiting Cahokia Mounds is a spiritual experience — especially climbing to the top of the 100-foot-tall Monks Mound, the largest of the ancient mounds.
“It is a little bit of a coming home journey for myself when you take that walk up Monks Mound, and you are on top where the chieftain would have been,’’ he said. “You get a full idea and breadth of the scope of this Mississippian civilization.’’
At its peak in 1200 A.D., an estimated 100,000 people lived at Cahokia, sometimes referred to as “America’s First City.” Mississippians lived, worked and worshipped atop earthen structures they built one basketful of dirt at a time. Researchers say the site was abandoned by 1300 A.D., but they aren’t sure why.
French explorers named the mounds after the Cahokia tribe, which lived in the area in the 17th century. Monks Mound was named for Trappist monks who once occupied a nearby mound.
In 1925, the state of Illinois took the first steps to preserve the mounds when it purchased 144 acres, including Monks Mound, to create a state park.
‘We won’t make any more of these’
Griffin belongs to a group of St. Louis-area descendants of the Chickasaw Nation who gathered at Cahokia Mounds to watch a Chickasaw troupe perform stomp dance, a tradition the tribe has passed down for generations.
National park status would ensure that the ancient mounds remain a gathering place for future generations, Griffin said.
“It’s a piece of history for our children,’’ she said.
Chris Krag of Belleville said it was inspiring to be at Cahokia Mounds watching the Chickasaw troupe perform the music and dance of her people.
“I’ve been here at the mounds before. And you’re always like, ‘OK, so how do we as modern Indian people relate to the prehistoric?’ And that’s hard to connect,’’ said Krag, whose great-grandmother was a Chickasaw. “But then we have our dance troupe that was here today connect the dots.’’
The ancient mounds are a cultural treasure that need to be protected — and the National Park Service has an established system for doing that, she said.
“I think it’s a good endeavor to pursue,’’ Krag said. “We won’t make any more of these.’’
More than 250,000 people visit Cahokia Mounds every year. In 1982, it was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is also a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.