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Which Communities Were Indigenous to the Ozarks? Artifacts, Documents Help Us Find Out

KSMU Archives

Although much of the culture of native tribes has been lost in translation, scholars and archeologists have pieced together a retelling of the Midwest’s native people. They’ve done so though artifacts, journals and a sheer motivation to know more. 

Missouri may not seem like that big of a place, but William Meadows can list over ten historical tribes of Missouri with ease. 

Meadows is an anthropology professor at MSU. And he says the state has a rich record of Native American tribes.

Some names? Osage, Quapaw, Caddo, Delaware and Kickapoo to name a few. He says two reservations were even within city limits of Springfield.

“These are not like we think of with like concrete borders and things today. It’s like a crisscrossing. There’s people coming and going in a lot of ways. Clearly, the Osage were the dominate group that more or less controlled and occupied the biggest portion of Missouri," Meadows said.

And it wasn’t unusual to find trade routes across the plains. Distances were long, and much of the artifacts archeologists have found today transcend those borders.

At the Center for Archaeological Research at MSU, assistant director Jack Ray holds an aged musket ball.

“They had largely lost their Stone Age technology and had adopted guns, metal tools like hunting knives. You’d find scissors. Lots of trade items were going out into the plains and they were trading with Indians," Ray said.

There’s one piece he’s extremely careful with – a small, rusted portion of a knife he slips out of its protective bag.

“Yeah, it’s not very large, but it’s definitely a hunting knife," Ray said.

These pieces come from a recently excavated Osage hunting camp near Swan Creek in Christian County. Ray and a team of students spent part of their summer following clues documented in Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s journal.

But 200 years later, the Osage’s primarily oral tradition proved to be a slight obstacle.

“What they did lose, or left, in way of artifacts, is not large," Ray said.

Meadows says agreements with the federal government forced many of the tribes to move to Kansas, Oklahoma and surrounding regions. Today, there are no federally recognized tribes in Missouri.

What is left is a small, scattered population with what he calls, “no ethnic core.”

And Meadows says the artifacts are stunning, but they need interpretation.  

“Of course we’d like to know more – of course, you know– but you have a very rich record,” Meadows said.

What does he suggest?

“I think it’s important to reach out to those communities and try to do something and interact. It’s only enriching our campus," Meadows said.

And as John Gram in the department of history says, we often miss the Natives around us.

“I think the image of Native Americans – in the mind of the average, non-Native American – is so frozen in time that we interact with Native Americans on a daily basis and don’t even realize it," Gram said.

Their identity, Gram says, is more than artifacts, documents and treaties. It’s also an intricate culture that explores belonging.

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