Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 17, 2024

Professor Allen speaks on the history and current perceptions of indigenous mounds

By ARUSA MALIK | April 5, 2023



Allen emphasised the importance of preserving Native American mounds.

On April 4, various departments at the University hosted professor Chadwick Allen to discuss his new book Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts.

Allen is a Russell F. Stark University professor with academic specialization in trans-indigenous literary studies and postcolonial literatures. Allen, of Chickasaw ancestry, focused his talk on archaeological histories of mounds. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Alicia Puglionesi — a lecturer in the Medicine, Science and the Humanities Department at the University — explained why she was excited for Allen to speak to Hopkins students.

“[The book] that just came out was a major reason why we wanted Dr. Allen to speak to us,” she said. “We wanted to connect with what he had to share.”

Allen began his lecture with a preface regarding the title of his book. He shared that, if he were to give it another title, it would be “Re-storying Mounds in Oklahoma” in order to provide a more holistic perspective on the history of indigenous mounds.

“I have become particularly interested in how the descendants of peoples who were forcibly removed are taking control of contemporary discourse of ancient mountains and other earthworks through tribally-based publications and through both tribally-specific and multi-tribal cultural centers open to the general public,” he said.

The book addresses four key points that Allen discussed during his presentation. These include the layering of diverse materials in the physical mounds, multiple structural patterns, multiple simultaneous alignments and mathematical encoding of indigenous mounds in the American South. 

The three vital purposes of indigenous mounds are providing effigies that connect the world above and the world below, platforms that represent the four cardinal directions needed for navigation and a sacred burial site.

Throughout history, mounds on North American plains have been misinterpreted and misconstrued by European settlers. Allen discussed how — though these mounds have impacted the world of civil engineers, politicians and rural planners — they are not mentioned in mainstream media.

“For too many North Americans living in the 21st century, indigenous earthworks are completely invisible,” he said.

Toward the end of the lecture, Allen discussed the importance of learning more about indigenous mounds in North America through physical involvement. The creation of “modern” mounds and museums surrounding man-made mounds was a point of contention for Allen; he explained that many museums meant to honor mounds in the South and Midwest were incomplete. 

However, Allen revealed that artists and scientists are creating a new narrative of indigenous archaeological histories through integrative practices, such as erecting museums that embrace the physical aspects of mounds. One example included the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma, which he praised for its traditional and educational aspects.

“The new mountain has been designed not only for visuals but also for direct physical engagement,” he said. “The First Americans Museum invites visitors to traverse a marked path along the long, curtain set up to the 90-foot pathway, where they can enjoy expansive views of the river-city skyline and the museum complex, similar to historical platforms.”

Allen touched on the multiple, simultaneous alignments of indigenous earthworks, explaining how the shape and material of the mounds represent an applied, indigenous science. He highlighted the importance of museums and cultural sights that share this scientific history with visitors. The First Americans Museum embraces the historical purposes of the mounds in determining cardinal directions, determining time throughout the day and observing equinoxes. 

“The First Americans Museum is oriented to the cardinal direction and to the solar phenomenon,” he said. “The facility's front doors are East to [face the] sunrise, and additional features of both the buildings and the mound align with the equinoxes and solstices. The site as a whole functions as a massive cosmological clock attuned to both daily and seasonal time at sunset on the shortest day of the Northern Hemisphere solar year.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, junior Amira Rady shared why this lecture connected to her studies in Medicine, Science and the Humanities. 

“[Allen] has come to speak with our class, so hearing him lecture provides a full breadth of knowledge for students, especially for [Medicine, Science and the Humanities students] conducting historical research,” she said. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Elaine Yang — a junior studying Medicine, Science and the Humanities along with Neuroscience and Writing Seminars — explained what struck her in Allen’s lecture.

“I was interested in looking at the cultural aspect of mounds rather than historical. I was really amazed by how much Professor Alan knows. He was able to answer questions so thoroughly. That stood out to me the most.”

Overall, Allen not only shared his work researching indigenous mounds but also, more specifically, analyzed how communities have appreciated the indigenous importance of mounds through public exhibitions and informational museums.

“These new mountains help us ask sophisticated questions about the relationships between forced migrations and indigenous understandings of placemaking, including the marking of rivals and the creation of new narratives of emergence,” he concluded.

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