Osage Nation Principal Chief Jim Gray bypassed the Osage Nation Congress and bought the property known as Sugarloaf Mound in what some are calling a historic move in the tribe’s history.
“The clock was ticking, we had the resources, so the Chief re-prioritized and took the appropriate action,” said Dr. Andrea Hunter, Osage Nation Historic Preservation Officer and director of the Historic Preservation Office. “I am absolutely thrilled . . . we’ve worked hard for several months to make this happen and I’m glad [Chief Gray] stepped up and made this happen.”
The Tribal Historic Preservation Office, along with a local St. Louis task force made up of historic preservation specialists, organizations, archaeologists and city officials, plan to fence the property and remove the three houses that are currently located on the top of the mound, the mound’s step and the mound’s base slope. The task force also plans to develop the location as an interpretive educational center from the Osage’s perspective on the mound’s history.
The full mound covers three city blocks and is roughly conical in shape with a stepped slope or platform. The mound measures about 40 feet in height, the mound measures approximately 100 feet north and south and 75 feet east and west and sits just outside St. Louis, Mo.
“Hundreds of years of the Osage people’s past have simply been erased from the landscape,” Gray said. “There is nothing we can do to bring back what was destroyed nor is the Osage Nation attempting to recreate a modern culture or lifestyle based on what has been set aside by our elders; but the Nation can impact what happens to Sugarloaf Mound today and can help educate Osages and the citizens of St. Louis about us and where they live.”
Congress divided on purchase
“The Chief exercised his power and used the money from his budget,” said Archie Mason, Speaker of the Congress. “He didn’t have to get our approval to purchase Sugarloaf Mound.”
Originally Hunter had gone to several congressional committee meetings requesting that Congress appropriate $235,000 to purchase the mound but was always met with a combination of opinions, negative and positive.
Mason said he was never thoroughly convinced that the mound was Osage but that he respected the work Hunter has done for the Nation. Congressman William “Kugee” Supernaw, who sat on the committee that heard Hunter’s proposal, is threatening legal action against Chief Gray for taking the money to purchase Sugarloaf Mound from the Osage Nation Properties budget. Supernaw alleges that Gray broke the law when he took the money from a line item in the budget that was meant to purchase office space in downtown Pawhuska.
“My opinion is that a case could be made for an abuse of the appropriation process because the purchase is outside the legislative intent; also, this purchase has never been discussed or approved by the whole Congress,” Supernaw wrote in an e-mail newsletter. “A suit could be filed to get an interpretation by the Osage Judicial Branch, but that could take months.”
Supernaw also questions Hunter’s evidence that the mound is Osage, citing a brief stint of his as an assistant for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act office for the Quapaw tribe (Supernaw is also Quapaw) and his own personal research on the history of the area. He also provided comments from several professors and an Osage historian who all agreed that the Osage involvement with the mound was questionable.
Congresswomen Shannon Edwards and Debbie Atterberry showed their support for the mound purchase by attending the press conference at the Executive Branch chambers and standing beside Chief Gray as he spoke of the purchase.
In November of 2008 the office of U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri contacted the historic preservation office regarding the potential to preserve the mound by purchasing the property, according to a prepared release.
That is when Hunter, who taught cultural preservation for 17 years at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., joined the local task force in determining if the mound was Osage.
“Our own evidence is oral traditions and migration traditions,” Hunter said. “We have to go back and look at what makes us Osage.”
Migration legends, pre-1673, speak about the Osage being one people with the Ponca, Omaha, Kaw and Quapaw. The legends say we migrated from the East, eventually breaking apart into individual groups post 1673. Linguists have us speaking Dhegiha Siouxan, one of the three subgroups of Sioux, but say at one time the five tribes all spoke the original Siouxan dialect, suggesting we all came from the same place.
The first known map on record was made by two explorers traveling down the Mississippi River in 1673. Those two explorers mapped the Indian civilizations they encountered and mapped the Osage in Missouri, near the area of what is now the city of St. Louis.
Osage beginnings trace back through historical and oral traditions to the Ohio River Valley and to the Cahokia area.
The Cahokia Mound civilization is documented to have been functioning from A.D. 800 to 1400 and represented the largest urban concentration of people in North America, north of the ancient Aztec cities in central Mexico, according to the release. Cahokia grew from the eastern side of the Mississippi River to the western shores of the river.
The mounds in the St. Louis area, including the extensive mound complex across the river at Cahokia, were built by Osage ancestors, according to the release. Sugarloaf Mound is one of the last remaining mounds on the west side of the Mississippi River, created by this same ancient Osage civilization.
Sugarloaf Mound today is located on what was once the border between St. Louis and the autonomous city of Carondelet. The mound was used as a survey landmark when St. Louis was incorporated in 1809 and during the following 150 years, its position above the riverfront protected it from industrialization. In 1928 the first house was built on the peak of the mound. The property was purchased again in 1962 and according to the past owners no one has tampered with the mound since the 1962 purchase.