Here is the second in a series of four holiday posts celebrating changes on the tall grass prairie and learning from the land. This is a time of celebrations: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice. These are the most familiar ones, but almost every culture has some kind of celebration marking the end of the year or the beginning of winter. Before the current Euro-American culture was transplanted to the prairie along Kanaranzi Creek, there were as many as five separate Native American cultures that lived in this creek valley.
As described in last week’s post, fossils of Ice Age animals have eroded out of the channel banks in the last few years. There may have been Paleoindians hunting in this area 10,000 years ago. But in addition to those very early cultures, there are bones and artifacts that are much younger. Some of the small pieces of bone seem to have cut marks from the butchering. These “fossils” are the remains of buffalo or bison that were hunted here in more recent times and the artifacts document what archaeologists call a “multicomponent site”. That means that a number of different cultures lived along the Creek far back into deep time.
Mauls or hammerheads have been found in the cultivated fields on the uplands around the valley. But, these artifacts aren’t distinctive enough to be diagnostic of specific cultures or particular times. On the other hand, some arrowheads or projectile points can be associated with specific cultures. At least one of the arrowheads found along the Creek channel in the floodplain, has been interpreted by an archaeologist to be from an Archaic cultural tradition. That represents a second Native American culture that was here about 2,500 years ago.
A third culture is documented with these two pieces of pottery and by a detailed geophysical study that mapped a possible dwelling outline and associated storage pits. Distinctive patterns in the pottery are diagnostic for a specific cultural tradition and the geophysics map suggests that the people of this Great Oasis culture lived here about 1,000 years ago. These interpretations are all based on more detailed data here on the farm than are available for the earlier cultures. The people of the Great Oasis culture are possibly early ancestors of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes that historically have lived in North and South Dakota.
About 500 years ago there was a “Silent City” with thousands of inhabitants located approximately 30 miles west of the Farm along the Big Sioux River. This Oneota tradition built mounds at Blood Run in Iowa and is described in displays at Good Earth State Park across the river in South Dakota. This diagram of a storage pit for corn is in the Visitor’s Center at the park. The Oneota people raised corn and stored it in cache pits. These corncobs were collected this past summer on sand bars along Kanaranzi Creek and are probably prehistoric cobs because they have about half as many kernels in each row as modern corn. Like the Oneota, the people of the Great Oasis tradition raised corn and stored it in pits so these prehistoric corncobs might be from the earlier agricultural activities. But, the Oneota had extensive trade networks and quarried pipestone in southwestern Minnesota. Although the evidence is indirect and the idea is speculative, maybe this is a fourth Native American culture that traveled along the Creek? It is believed to be the precursor to the modern Omaha, Ponca, and Ioway tribes now living in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Our grandchildren found these two artifacts along the Creek just behind our house. They’re probably related to the Great Oasis occupation because that’s the culture that we have the best record of. The blades seem pristine and may have been for ceremonial use rather than utilitarian knife blades. All of our understanding of the ceremonies celebrated by these ancient cultures is based on interpretations of physical artifacts. In contrast, there is a fifth Native American culture that has been directly observed to travel and live along Kanaranzi Creek. The Dakotah people encountered the homesteaders who settled here 150 years ago. We have family stories of kids playing together and adults interacting with mutual help and trade.
It’s commonly recognized that diversity is good. For example, a diversified portfolio reduces investment risk and biologic diversity is a hallmark of resilient natural systems. Cultural diversity is something that people look for by traveling all over the world. But, there’s a lesson from the land here that says cultures have always changed out here on the prairie. Back through time there’s been a continuity of humanness. No matter what their cultural tradition, all people want to care for their family, earn a living, maintain a safe environment, and practice their spiritual beliefs.
The idea for this series of holiday posts originally came from an invitation to contribute to a “Prairie Podcast” organized by the MN DNR for people working in the tall grass prairie. It hasn’t “dropped” yet, but I’ll let you know when it becomes available.