By Tom UhlenbrockMissouri State ParksMIAMI, Mo. – Wave after wave of migrating waterfowl moved in V formations across the winter sky on this late afternoon. The landscape below of marsh, wet prairie and forest known as the Oumessourit Natural Area was filled with the cries of Canada geese, snow geese and ducks. A bald eagle watched the parade from a tree top near its nest.
The Native Americans had first pick, and it’s easy to see why they settled in this area of rich river valley bordered by high hills known locally as the Pinnacles.
The natural area is a reminder of what the floodplain of the Missouri looked like before the river was channelized and constricted by levees. It is part of Van Meter State Park, which was created 80 years ago to preserve a village site inhabited by the people who gave the river, and state, its name.Some five centuries ago, a prehistoric culture called the Oneota by archaeologists built a village of lodges and an earthen structure known as the Old Fort on the bluff looking down on the wetlands. Their descendants were living closer to the river in 1673 when Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet arrived at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi.The French explorers recorded the names of the tribes living upriver on the Missouri. Near a bend on the Missouri where the Grand River enters, they were told the tribe living there was the Oumessourit, which meant “people of the big canoes.” The name evolved into Missouria for the tribe, and to Missouri for the river and state.The river valley was the land of plenty for the Missouria. They gathered roots and seeds, hunted small game and fished for sunfish, catfish and suckers. Bones found at their village site came from animals of the marsh – otter, beaver, turtle, muskrat, deer, fish and trumpeter swan. They grew corn, beans and squash, and used rushes and cattails for roof thatching in their village of some 5,000 people.
But the Europeans brought smallpox and other diseases that quickly decimated the native peoples. In decline, the Missouria moved upriver to live with the Otoes in Nebraska. When Lewis and Clark came in 1803, there were some 300 Missouria surviving. In 1829, there were 80. The last full-blooded Missouria died in 1908.
At the time of the expedition, nine tribes lived on land that became the state of Missouri – Delaware, Ioway, Kanza, Kickapoo, Osage, Illini-Peoria, Sac and Fox, Shawnee and Otoe-Missouria.
Today, those tribes have been scattered by the arrival of the white man, with many relocated to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma. Van Meter State Park is home to Missouri’s American Indian Cultural Center, which seeks not only to preserve the history of those nine tribes, but to bring back living members to explain and share their heritage.
“We went to all the reservations, or tribal headquarters, and asked the tribes to come back and tell their stories,” said Connie Grisier, historic site specialist for the park. “We’ve had representatives from all nine – they’ve sent pottery artists, flutists, drummers and dancers. We had each tribe assign an artist to paint something symbolic on a bison hide. The Delaware have been very supportive, they carved a lodge pole. Louis Burns, an Osage, donated his dance regalia.“The misnomer is the Indians have vanished, and they have not. “
A birthday party
Created in 2005 from a federal grant as part of the Lewis and Clark commemoration, the American Indian Cultural Center adopted as its logo the drawing of an eagle or hawk found on an engraved catlinite tablet discovered in 1936 near the park. Called the Utz Tablet for the farmer who found it while plowing, the engravings are believed to be the work of the Oneota.
A reproduction of the tablet is among the exhibits inside the center’s two display rooms.
“We are not a museum, although we have four cases of artifacts from the Missouria village site,” said Grisier, the site specialist. “As a cultural center, we are trying to portray not only the historic tribes, but where they are today.”
The first room has a display that represents William Clark’s office and reprints of maps from the early 1800s that showed the locations of North America’s Indian tribes. “I love this one,” Grisier said of one of the early maps. “It says, ‘Wandering Indians and Maneaters’.”The main room has a firepit in the center and surrounding walls hung with poster-sized reproductions of paintings by the first artists to document the Native Americans. Included are portraits of tribal chiefs by Karl Bodmer, George Catlin and Charles Bird King, whose paintings are part of the McKinney and Hall Collection.
A hide stretched under a bison head displays the symbols painted for the cultural center by representatives of the nine tribes. A replica of a Missouria lodge is filled with tools, foods and hides. A mannequin wears the Osage dance regalia, from the deer roach on the head to the beaded moccasins on the feet. The contemporary art includes a war club by Delaware artist Mike Watkins with a face carved on the wood ball.The center has an eight-minute video that explains the site’s history, and audio wands are available that give the histories of the various tribes as you walk through the exhibits.
“We’re celebrating the 80th anniversary of the founding of Van Meter at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 15,” Grisier said. “ We’ll have a cake, and a public meeting.”
A startling cry
Annie Vanmeter (the original spelling) donated some 369 acres to the state in 1932 in honor of her husband, Abel, a wealthy farmer. The land became the core of the park, which has been expanded over the years to 1,105 acres. The park has a shaded campground with 22 camping sites, restrooms and a showerhouse. Two stone-and-wood picnic shelters built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps can be reserved for group picnics.
Trails lead to the park’s features, including a short hike to the walled Vanmeter cemetery on a hillside.
One of the steep ravines in the park was impounded to create an 18-acre fishing lake that is stocked by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The Lakeview Trail follows the west shore of the lake for a little more than a half mile, and the Loess Hills Trail circles the lake for two miles.The Missouri River Overlook trail is a short walk to a clearing in the forest where visitors can see the vast floodplain, including the nearby Grand Pass Conservation Area.
A .75-mile trail leads visitors to three boardwalks of steel grating that extend into the wetlands of the 300-acre Oumessourit Natural Area. One of the boardwalks is a loop that goes by an active eagle nest.The 1.4-mile Earthworks Trail heads through the mature woods to the site of the Old Fort, which has been softened by age but is still identifiable by its contours in a clearing of trees. Because the fort did not have wood palisades, it may have been used for ceremonial, rather than defensive, purposes.
Nearby are three burial mounds, covered by golden grasses. Walking through the grasses on top of one of the mounds, the silence of the warm winter afternoon was broken by the startling cry of what sounded like the whoop of a mounted warrior.
It came again, overhead, as a pair of snow geese flew up out of the river valley, cresting the top of the bluff.
For more information on Van Meter State Park, call (660) 886-7537 or visit mostateparks.com .