Noteworthy

Crossroads of the Past: Arkansas Project Highlights Native American History

Elliott West, April 1989

Crossroads of the Past is the title of a sixteen-panel exhibit currently being circulated in communities throughout Arkansas in an effort to assist the citizens of our state in retrieving an important and hitherto obscure portion of their history. The project is a collaborative undertaking of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, the University Museum of the University of Arkansas, and the Arkansas Endowment for the Humanities. It was the latter agency, in fact, whose proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities gained us the $65,000 exemplary award which made it possible for Crossroads to reach so many localities in the state.

The exhibit's subject is the Native American peoples who have inhabited Arkansas for thousands of years. Progressing from the earliest Indian immigration to the present, its panels display line drawings, water colors and photographs of artifacts chosen to suggest the diversity of indigenous cultures, their artistic achievements, and the texture of their lives. Visitors to Crossroads will see tools, slate figurines, animal effigies, clay pipes and vessels, and a child's moccasin, at least nine centuries old, still lined with soft grass.

As its most immediate purpose, the exhibit presents a survey of native American life in the region over a period of twelve millennia. Implicitly, its panels also challenge several commonly-held impressions of that experience. Indian life before the arrival of Europeans, for instance, has been pictured as relatively static; in fact, their story is one of dynamic and complex change. In contrast to the prevalent image of peoples struggling to survive by primitive, hand-to-mouth methods, the archeological record shows remarkably high standards of living that supported flourishing cultural life.

Scarcely a generation ago, it was thought that Native Americans first occupied the region known today as Arkansas sometime about 500 B.C. Ample evidence now shows that, as early as 9500 B.C., Paleo-Indians were living in the region, hunting the huge herds of horses, mammoths, camels, and other animals which thrived in the cool, wet climate. As our exhibit makes clear, by 8500 B.C., people of the Dalton culture had established a way of life that would persist in the land throughout the Archaic Period (8000–1000 B.C.). Superb toolmakers, these people exploited a wide range of resources. They quarried flint in the Ozark plateau and novaculite, or Arkansas "whetstone," in the Ouachita Mountains. It is the presence of the latter in sites throughout the Mississippi Valley which suggests that a trading system linked Arkansas with Native American communities in the southeast and midwest even during this early period of human habitation.

The increasing reliance of the Dalton culture peoples on the cultivation of sunflowers, squash, lambs-quarters, and other plants encouraged them toward a more settled, less nomadic style of life. During the Woodland Period (500 B.C. to 900 A.D.), Arkansas' villagers became expert at making clay vessels for cooking and storing food. Their decorated vessels have been found in large, log-roofed tombs near Helena, Arkansas on the Mississippi River. These mound-covered burials, strikingly similar to others prepared by Native Americans of the Hopewell culture in Illinois and Ohio, dramatically reveal the flow of both trade and beliefs over thousands of square miles of the continent's interior. Hence, the name of the exhibit, Crossroads of the Past.

Between 1100 and 1500 A.D., this cultural tradition came to dominate much of the southeast and Mississippi Valley, including most of eastern Arkansas. Increasingly dependent on corn cultivation, these Arkansans lived in hamlets or small farmsteads near ceremonial and trading centers in which they built the distinctive mounds associated with the period. Their population, especially in the Delta, grew considerably during these years. After 1300 A.D., most inhabitants of northeastern Arkansas were living in towns and cities, many fortified with walls and ditches. Up to 20,000 persons may have resided in the largest of these centers. Further west dwelt such tribes as the Tunica, the Koroa, and the Caddo, who enjoyed long-distance trade contacts with the peoples of the Plains.

It would be the peoples of the Mississippian chiefdoms who met—and often fought—the first Europeans to enter the lower Mississippi Valley. On his expedition in 1541–43, Hernando de Soto found stockaded towns with towers and moats. To repel the Spanish troops, Indian leaders sent fleets of hundreds of canoes carrying thousands of shield-bearing warriors. When Marquette and Joliet descended the Mississippi 130 years later, the fortified towns had vanished. Diseases apparently introduced by contact with the Spanish had swept through the densely populated delta and with them came an economic and social unraveling. In the end, the indigenous populations may have declined as much as 90 percent, although today Arkansas can boast of a Native American population that numbers nearly 10,000 people.

The Crossroads of the Past exhibit, which seeks to encompass this important chapter in the Arkansas experience, was unveiled for public viewing in September at the University Museum at Fayetteville and has since been seen at the Southeast Archeological Conference in New Orleans and the Toltec Mounds State Park. This latter "homecoming" even attracted leaders and members of the state's remaining native American tribes as "special guests" of the sponsoring cultural agencies. In the months ahead, the NEH grant to the Arkansas Endowment for the Humanities will make it possible for the exhibit to travel to sites throughout the state, accompanied in every instance by a Crossroads study guide developed especially for classroom and public use.

—Elliott West is professor of history at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and author of the forthcoming study, Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier.