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Burial mounds at risk - Native Americans rally to divert proposed overpass

Posted by Lee to NDN AIM

Norma Mendoza - December 14, 2002

More than a dozen members of various Native American tribes and their supporters staged a vigil outside the East St. Louis City Hall Thursday to support their pleas to the council to do what it can to save the East St. Louis mounds from destruction due to planned road construction.

They beat a ceremonial drum, chanted sacred songs and burned herbs to sanctify the area. They also collected signatures on petitions.

"To us, all Indian people are related," said Ruben Aguirre, one of the organizers of the vigil, whose heritage is Tongva-Gabrielinos, the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles basin area of California. "It is just like one of my own family when they dig someone up." Many believe the mounds to be ancient burial mounds.

"These are our relatives, their spirit is still around us," Steve Hunter said. "We are left here to protect them. Sadly, we haven't done a very good job." Hunter said he has been unable to establish a tribal link for his great-grandmother who was a Native American, but he follows the Lakota ways.

A number of the mounds are already gone from the city of East St. Louis, destroyed long ago in the name of progress as the railroads and highways were built through the area that became a transportation hub. Several sites are covered by Interstate 55/70 and its interchanges.

And now, plans for a new overpass over Interstate 64 threaten the remaining mounds.

As part of the New Mississippi River Bridge project, the Illinois Department of Transportation originally planned to eliminate both the Ninth Street and 10th Street overpasses over Interstate 64.

The interstate beneath the overpasses currently floods after heavy rains because the roadbed is so low and IDOT plans to raise the level of the roadbed. Any overpass would have to be higher than the current ones to allow passage underneath.

Residents on the northern side of the interstate complained they would be cut off from downtown East St. Louis if the bridges were closed and IDOT reconfigured its plans.

Mary Lamie, of IDOT, said plans to eliminate the two one-way bridges were changed to include a new two-way overpass to allow for community access. The new plan is what threatens the mounds.

"This is probably one of those few instances where we are really looking for input from the community," Lamie said Friday. She said the route for the overpass approach does take the roa pd through an area of archaeological significance.

"There is a group that considers that a very sacred area," Lamie said. "We were ready to meet with (members of the East St. Louis City Council) yesterday, but East St. Louis wants more time. So, we will probably meet with them in January. We're committed to doing what is right for the community."

Kathy Andria of the American Bottom Conservancy assisted Aguirre and Deanna Brice in obtaining signatures on petitions at the vigil Thursday night. Brice's heritage is Blackfoot and Alabama-Coushatta, the latter tribe among the Southeastern Mound Builder tribes.

Other tribes represented at the vigil were Apache, Dineh-Navajo, Sioux, and Seminole.

Also in attendance was a member of the Sierra Club and an anthropology professor from Washington University in St. Louis.

Just before the meeting started, Eddie Jackson, president pro-tem of the City Council, stopped to talk with the group. He said the road construction will be discussed in January.

"We're putting forth every effort to make sure we don't destroy the mounds," Jackson said. "I think you're going to be pleasantly surprised."

Andria said Friday that more than 60 signatures were collected urging the East St. Louis City Council and IDOT to move the approach next to the MetroLink tracks. Andria said the mounds area and plaza would be a better place for a trail that would link the East St. Louis riverfront with the downtown mounds and Cahokia Mounds farther east of the city, and bring tourism dollars and economic development into the city.

Alice Cason of East St. Louis was one of the signers of the petitions.

"They took everything from the Indians and now they even want to take the mounds from us," Cason said, indicating she is in favor of saving the mounds.

Ed Packineau, of Hidatsa heritage, had come to the vigil armed with a copy of the federal "Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act."

"This is why we're here tonight," Packineau said. "Just to see that this law is upheld. I don't trust the government."

(It isn't clear whose car sported the bumper sticker spotted as a reporter left the City Hall parking lot, "Sure you can trust the government -- ask any Indian.")

Edwardsville Intelligencer 2002

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