Long before Europeans arrived in the land that would become America, the ancestors of today's indigenous people built and maintained thriving communities. Their languages, cultural practices, and oral histories were passed down to their descendants, who have maintained them as well as possible considering the war, genocide, disease, and cultural destruction that began almost as soon as the Europeans arrived. But the ancestors also left physical evidence of their history: Structures (often elaborate and enormous) of dirt, rock, and sometimes shell for burial, ceremonial, and other purposes – some known, some unknown. In English, these structures are called mounds.
Naturally, the Europeans could not imagine that the people they considered "primitive" would have been able to build such structures. For a long time, they believed that another "race" had lived on the land before the indigenous people they met, and those people had built the mounds. In 1787, Benjamin Smith Barton proposed that the mounds were built by Vikings. And in 1836, the "Walum Olum" hoax suggested that wooden tablets (forged, of course) revealed that the mound builders came from Asia across the Bering Strait – a theory that held on to for quite some time even after the tablets were revealed to be a hoax. And, of course, there were those who believed the mound builders were from Atlantis or were aliens.
But what are indigenous mounds, really? They have been lots of things to lots of different people over the generations, from leaders to looters, and they are still important to indigenous people today. For example, in August 2017, the Mvskoke (Creek) people repatriated the remains of 113 of their ancestors, along with 42 funerary objects, in the Ocmulgee Mounds in Macon, Georgia. The Mvskoke people have lived in Oklahoma since the 1830s, when they were forced from their ancestral home in what is now Alabama/Georgia by President Andrew Jackson's removal policy, AKA the Trail of Tears.
American indigenous mounds have survived hurricanes, floods, archaeologists, looters, and tourists. They are classified according to archaeological time periods as Archaic (9600-1000 BCE), Woodland (1000 BCE-900 CE), and Mississippian (900 CE-1600 CE). Today, some are preserved as parks or cultural centers while others are on private land, often inaccessible to the descendants of their builders. There are way too many mounds to include all of them, but this list presents a short history of indigenous mounds in America.
Monte Sano – Baton Rouge, LA
Poverty Point – Pioneer, LAPhoto: United States Army Corps of Engineers / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Serpent Mound – Peeblesville, OH
Cahokia Mounds – Collinsville, IL
Ocmulgee National Monument – Macon, GA
Moundville – Moundville, AL