IDOT archaeologist speaks Thursday about Mississippi River Bridge Project

An ancient city unearthed in present-day East St. Louis during the Mississippi River Bridge Project will be the topic of discussion for the first of two Native American Studies minor events held this month.

Brad Koldehoff, chief archaeologist of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), will speak to students at 7 p.m., Nov. 7, at Peck Hall 0312.

Anthropology professor Julie Holt, also a Native American Studies professor, said the program has been trying to arrange speakers to visit campus because November is Native American Heritage Month.

Though Koldehoff is not Native American, Holt said he will speak about the discoveries from the Mississippi River Bridge project, which are a “big deal” as the area is a “supporting site for Cahokia [mounds],” and tribal consultation.

It is important to discuss these findings specifically because they are from a time when there was no history, according to Koldehoff.

“There is no written report. So we’re able to essentially add pages to the history book, and it’s incredibly important for current Native American groups because these are their ancient ancestors…,” Koldehoff said.

The East St. Louis site, according to Koldehoff, is an extension of the nearby Cahokia Mounds – a roughly 1,000 year old ancient Native American civilization – and has allowed researchers to learn more about East St. Louis and Cahokia Mounds.

“[We] found what we would call an ancient city because we found nearly 6,000 habitation features, which are house floors and cooking pits and storage pits,” Koldehoff said, “and from those 6,000 features we recovered over a million artifacts.”

However, Koldehoff said many of the artifacts are “pretty nondescript” and include broken pieces of rocks or flint chips, which were ancient Native Americans used to make tools.

The discovered society, according to Koldehoff, “is really a stone-age society,” though they “completed pretty sophisticated things with simple tools.”

“It’s really the residue of daily life about 1,000 years ago in East St. Louis,” Koldehoff said. “So that gives us great insight into what life was like.”

The National Historic Preservation Act requires consultation with “federally recognized Native American groups and tribes,” according to Koldehoff.

“So they have a say, they have concerns about what we find, particularly when we find burials and mounds, ancient monuments…,” Koldehoff said. “We had to work with the tribes as well as with the IDOT engineers [to] try to avoid impacts to the human remains and the mound.”

Koldehoff said “collaboration and extensive coordination,” onsite meetings and conference calls occurred in order to “work through what could feasibly be done and what could not be feasibly done” with the findings.

The dig, according to Koldehoff, was sponsored by IDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. The Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois sponsored the archaeological excavations. Additionally, Koldehoff said the work was completed because of regulations, most notably the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The field work was completed in fall 2012, and Koldehoff said for the next four years staff from the State Illinois Archaeology Survey will tabulate and analyze the artifacts and produce reports on the findings.

As far as the site itself, Koldehoff said there is “plenty of this ancient city left hidden underneath East St. Louis and there are efforts to try and preserve that.”

The second Native American Studies event will be held Nov. 13 when LaDonna Brown, historic preservation officer at the Chickasaw Nation, speaks at 7:30 p.m. in Peck Hall 0312. Brown herself is a member of the Chickasaw Nation.

Holt said the significance of holding events featuring Native Americans is to give students the opportunity to meet Native Americans. “None of the faculty in Native American studies are actually native American,” Holt said. “It’s kind of unusual, right? If you look at black studies or women’s studies you’ll see predominantly black and women. But in Native American Studies… I feel like it’s really critical to bring Native Americans to campus when we can.”

“The Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, and our Congress decided to get rid of all Native Americans basically east of the Mississippi and move them west of the Mississippi,” Holt said.

As a result, there are “no identified Native American communities in Illinois,” according to Holt.

“That’s not to say there aren’t Native Americans in Illinois,” Holt said. “The fact is most Native Americans they do not live on reservations. Most live in urban areas. Since the 1950s there were relocation programs that tried to get Native Americans off of reservations and living in cities…”

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