ST. LOUIS, MO — While Thanksgiving is a time to share good food with friends and family, the holiday can also be fraught with instances of cultural appropriation and too-convenient histories. Before you binge on turkey and cranberry sauce this year, it may be a good time to pause and remember the indigenous peoples who lived in St. Louis long before you. There’s even an interactive map where you can plug in your address and see exactly what groups used to live there.
According to the site Native-Land.ca, run by Victor Temprano, Osage, Miami, Sioux and Haudenosauneega (also called Iroquois) groups once lived in the St. Louis region. The Osage, Miami and Sioux are federally-recognized tribes with members still alive today, while the Iroquois were a powerful confederacy of six indigenous nations centered around the Great Lakes, their influence spanning much of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys.
Before those groups occupied the land, St. Louis was one site of Mississippian culture, a civilization that built complex earthworks across much of the continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains.
Just across the river from St. Louis lies Cahokia, a medieval city that would have rivaled London, Paris or any city in Europe when it was built around the 13th Century. Today the site features a massive earthen mound that is still one of the largest pyramids in the world.
The creators noted their map is a work in progress and doesn’t represent official or legal boundaries of any indigenous nations. The federal government officially recognizes nearly 600 Native American tribes in the continental United States and Alaska, and scholars estimate that between 900,000 and 18 million people lived north of the Rio Grande before Christopher Columbus landed in North America, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. So coming up with definitive or exact boundaries is quite difficult.
What’s less murky is what happened to those indigenous peoples.
Native American populations began to dwindle from European diseases even before Europeans brought violence to their doorstep, with as many 50 million Native Americans losing their lives between 1492 and 1890. While the death toll varies widely, some experts have suggested that the total Native American population size plummeted by more than 90 percent through war, enslavement, societal disruption and — especially — pandemic disease, including smallpox and measles.
If you plan to recognize any or all of these indigenous peoples, consider one North Carolina educator’s advice of what not to do.
“Teachers! Repeat after me: I will not have my students make ‘Indian’ feathers/clothes,” tweeted Lauryn Mascareñaz, a director in the Wake County school system’s Office of Equity Affairs. “I will not culturally appropriate an entire people for 'cute' activities. I will tell my students the truth about this country’s relationship with Indigenous people. #PinterestIsNotPedagogy."
Her tweet received about 4,000 likes by Tuesday afternoon and was retweeted about 1,200 times.
Indeed, stereotypes and racist portrayals of indigenous peoples "fill U.S. elementary schools each November," according to Lindsey Passenger Wieck, public history graduate program director at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. In an article on Medium, she writes that students routinely encounter historically false portrayals in arts and crafts, books and lessons, and songs and plays with "hand-crafted headdresses and vests."
She called these activities problematic because they show Native people in an ahistorical manner and perpetuate myths about how they encountered colonials.
"These representations of Native peoples are harmful because they compress all Native peoples into a single image of 'the Native American at Thanksgiving,'" wrote Wiek. "These depictions overlook the immense diversity of Native peoples in North America, while also turning contemporary Native peoples and identities into costumes to be worn."
Americans should "de-romanticize" the holiday, she said, by "engaging Native perspectives that recognize the diversity of Indigenous peoples and their contemporary presence in 21st-century America."
She suggests adults teach kids using children’s books such as Sally Hunter’s "Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition." This will allow them to look at historical methods of subsistence and see how some continue even today. Teachers, she said, can look at Thanksgiving myths with students and older kids can even study how Native Americans are responding to the holiday today.
Patch national staffer Dan Hampton contributed reporting.
Photo: A reconstructed thatched house at Cahokia, a medieval Native American city just outside East St. Louis. (Shutterstock)