Wetlands & Waterways: The Key to Cahokia

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Collinsville, IL

The Interpretive Center at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, explains the Mississippian Culture to over 280,000 annual visitors. Despite declining staff and financial resources, Cahokia found a way to launch Wetlands & Waterways: The Key to Cahokia, an important new project connecting the Mississippians with their environment centered around a 700-year-old canoe.

Funds earmarked for the site by the Illinois State Treasurer were used to develop and implement an exhibit focusing on the wetlands environment and the navigable waterways, both of which were linchpins to the Mississippian settlement in the area, with the new canoe as the centerpiece. Despite limited funds, no watercraft conservation procedures or policies in place, and a reduction in staff by half, the multi-component exhibit project came to fruition on schedule. It now completes the story of how the Mississippians depended and exploited the various wetland environments and how the extensive waterways facilitated their success.

The project consists of a 52-foot mural depicting the varying landscapes occupied by the Mississippian population in the area as a backdrop to a life-sized diorama. It includes text panels that explain the emergence of plant cultivation and agriculture, the various resources utilized, subsistence techniques and patterns, and the riverine landscape. It also touches on iconography and cosmology and how these topics are both derivative and reflective of the environment. A special exhibit case was constructed to contain the 22-foot canoe. This 700-year-old watercraft is an example of the ingenuity and craftsmanship of indigenous people in general, and an example of the interdependence of people and landscape of the Midwest region. A companion book compiles the research conducted for the exhibits, discusses the aquatic traditions of early Americans, and documents the exhibit process. The exhibits and the book were completed with a budget of $330,000 with only a six-person project team.

The project explains an important yet neglected aspect of American history: how pre-Columbian Americans coalesced into an urban complex in the Midwest over 1,000 years ago, and supported a population of 10,000+ people for about 400 years. It tells the story of the symbiotic relationship of the inhabitants and their environment, and the impact of the extensive waterways on the success of the settlement. Wetlands & Waterways is the first comprehensive exhibit that merges all aspects of the interconnectedness of Mississippian settlement and landscape.