Mound-builders of the Mississippi

For the longest time Europeans refused to believe that the platform mounds they discovered in the valley of the Mississippi river could have been constructed by native people. Their sheer size was just too impressive. The “Indians,” the Europeans had decided, were hunters and gatherers but the people of the Mississippi lived in large cities, they grew crops and the construction of the mounds must have required years of dedicated labor. Only a highly organized society could have managed that task. Perhaps it was the Vikings who had built the mounds, or the Chinese, the Greeks or the ancient Egyptians?

By denying that indigenous people could have created such monuments, the Europeans denied that they had their own civilization. And that, in their minds, gave the Europeans the right to occupy the land. It was their obligation, after all, to spread civilization. The story of Europeans in the New World, a textbook for American high-schools explained as relatively recently as in the 1980s, “is the story of the creation of civilization where none existed.”

They should have known better. There were still mound-builders as late as in the eighteenth-century. French explorers who visited the Natchez, a tribe living in the lower Mississippi, were astonished to be greeted by their leader, known as the “Great Sun,” who lived in a large house on the top of a platform mound. The Great Sun was treated as a living god by his people and was carried in a litter wherever he went. His mother, known as “White Woman,” was his principal adviser and lived in a house on top of another mound. Ordinary Natchez grew corn, beans, squash and tobacco. The Green Corn ceremony was the apex of their annual cycle of religious events.

The Natchez were defeated in a war with French settlers in the 1730s. As a result some were sold into slavery in the Caribbean while others were forced to take refuge with other tribes. Today there is still a Natchez nation with some 6,000 members. It is led by a chief, still known as “Great Sun,” and by four “Clan Mothers.” The last fluent speaker of the Natchez language died in 1957. Today the Natchez are trying to revive their language.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “North American otter pipe”