On my travels across my home continent, I would occasionally notice highway signs for Indian mounds or pueblos. If there was time, I would take the off-ramp and learn what I could of these unfamiliar attractions. Especially in the case of the mounds, I was unencumbered by any knowledge of their history. I had never seen a movie about the Mississippian Mounds culture or the Ancient Pueblo people popularly known as the “Anasazi.”

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC.  Note same architect as the museum in Canada.

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC.
Note same architect as the museum in Canada (right).

When the National Museum of the American Indian opened at the Smithsonian complex in 2004, I went to Washington to see what the institution had to say about Indian habitation of the Americas. The first thing I noticed was that the use of the term “Indian” had been institutionalized. The exhibits that filled this architectural showplace were assembled with full participation of American Indian organizations. I went to the information desk and said that my main interests in Indian history were the Mississippian Mounds culture and Ancient Pueblo culture of the Southwest. The information specialist behind the counter informed me that these subjects were not represented in the museum.

Mystified, I was sent upstairs to talk to a research librarian. Mounds and pueblos are, after all, the most massive and widespread ruins of ancient Indian culture, above the Mexican border. It took some effort to discover that the committees making the decisions about the content of this national museum were made up of members of the “federated tribes” of North America. It would seem fair to assume that the priorities for these groups lay in the direction of a brighter future and a new respect for these tribes. There is less interest within this community in digging up the past and more emphasis on the restructuring of identity.

What I have found on the ancient Pueblos will be covered in the post that follows this one, called Southwest & Northwest. So far in my search, I have found no Hollywood movies set among the ancient Mounds. This is partly, it appears, because there have been allegations of Maya and Aztec-like sacrifices at the top of the ceremonial stairs in places like Cahokia just across the Mississippi from St. Louis.

It is on the Plains that Northern Native American history comes most vividly and tragically to life. The nomadic buffalo hunters of the Plains are the direct inheritors of the traditions of the mammoth hunters from Asia. While other indigenous societies on the continent rose in complexity, the nomads kept their traditions and fought off the Europeans until the bitter end.

Where have all the nomads gone?  The central mystery in what remains of Native American life is in the “disappearances” of entire cultures even before the coming of the white sails.  The more these mysteries are studied, however, the less mysterious they become.  It seems that earliest Americans were very much at the mercy of natural causes: weather patterns, especially drought, ancient ice, volcanic eruptions, maybe meteorites, and the stresses brought on by these conditions that often led to warfare and other brutalities.  When things became intolerable or untenable in one place, the ancestors reverted to their nomadic ways and moved on like birds on the wind.  With no recorded regrets, they left behind beautiful pueblos nested in high cliffs and monumental mounds to be covered over by forests.  In the South and Central Americas, they left astounding temple complexes to be enfolded by the jungle. See Central America.

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