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Seven Sacred Stories 

of the Peoria Falcon

By Brian “Fox” Ellis

The Peoria Falcon is an ancient copper plate used as an ornament, possibly as armament, and worn by a Native American dancer in the Illinois River Valley more than a thousand years ago.

Every historic artifact tells stories. It holds the stories of the earth, the raw materials from which it was made. It holds the stories of the culture and the craftsman, the people who made it and how it was made. It tells a story of purpose, how it was used. Every historic artifact holds within it the clues of provenance, where it went and how it got there. 

This copper falcon is the key to seven sacred stories, stories of geology, the earth’s history, plate tectonics and glaciations. It tells the stories of the first people of the Illinois River, a story of ancient trade routes, the story of the river itself. This beautiful bird is a glimpse into the culture, their arts, religious beliefs and the astounding craftsmanship of the First Nations. It tells the story of the coming of the European, America’s migration west and early economic development. It holds within it the story of museum politics and the rebirth of a culture.

I. Geology

Two hundred million years ago the continents of the earth were swimming in the ocean-sky-swirl void. They still are. Like an ancient turtle, this island you know as North America is swimming in the ocean. Imagine a rock the size of North America crashing into Africa and Europe. Rocks you find in old England are much like the bedrock of New England’s coast. The big curve of Africa fits in between North and South America. If you take a map of the world and cut out all of the continents they fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Not once, but twice, the continents of the earth swam together and pulled apart, Gondwanaland, Pangaea, Laurasia. 

When these continents swim together one usually slides under and the other is pushed up. We now know this is what causes the earthquakes in California and volcanoes throughout the Pacific Ring of Fire. Two continents clashing together causes one of them to rise up creating mountain ridges. Geologists call the result of this tectonic movement an anticline, a wrinkle in the crust of the earth. The Appalachian Mountains are actually some of the oldest mountains on the earth. Not once, but twice they were pushed up by tectonic migration and worn down by erosion. 

Two hundred million years ago, when the Appalachian Mountains were created, there was a smaller wrinkle, an anticline, here in the middle of the continent. There were earthquakes and volcanoes. In what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a volcano erupted casting molten magma up from the fiery core of the earth. This copper, the copper that forms this falcon, was produced more than two hundred million years ago as Turtle Island crashed into Europa.  

II. Glaciation

One hundred thousand years ago there was a winter that lasted one hundred thousand years. It ended just twelve thousand years ago. Over the course of a hundred thousand years the glaciers grew and regressed. Mountainous piles of snow accumulated, falling faster than it could melt, until huge walls of ice built up and slowly moved south. Most geologist talk about four glacial periods: The Illinoisan glacier went as far south as the southern end of Illinois and melted back. The Kansan glacier went to the southern end of Kansas and melted back. The Nebraskan glacier to the southern end of Nebraska and then the last of the glaciers, the Wisconsin glacier came as far south as the northern end of Illinois. Each time this wall of ice migrated south, like a giant bulldozer it flattened everything in its path, carving the tops off of ridges and depositing the ruble to fill in valleys.

To give you an idea of how big these glaciers were, one ice cube melted and made Lake Michigan. Another glacier melted and made Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lakes Superior and Ontario. A thousand little ice cubes melted and made the land of a thousand lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In an interglacial period, about fifty thousand years ago, as this mile high wall of ice was melting, it carved the Illinois River Valley. At one time the Mississippi and Ohio

Rivers flowed in this valley. At this time the valley carried the melt water of these glaciers. This ancient river was more than 100 feet deep and two miles wide. The glaciers pushed the Ohio River further south and the Mississippi further west into their current channels.

In this time before time, there were wooly mammoth and mastodon, saber toothed cat and sloth bear, dire wolf and bison antiquitus roaming the river’s edge. As the glaciers melted back, these large animals migrated into this valley. They were followed by Homo sapiens, the first humans. Archeologists keep moving the date back, but we have conclusive evidence that the first humans hunted the giant bison here in the Illinois Valley more than 13,000 years ago; they were also hunted by the saber toothed cat.

As the ice melted back the boulders and gravel carried from the far north were left behind. Rocks picked up and tumbled by the rolling sheets of ice were deposited in the fields and forest that grew on the retreating tail of the glaciers. Rare, but not unheard of, pieces of copper picked up in northern Michigan were carried here by the glaciers and left behind as the glaciers melted. This is one theory of how the copper that forms this falcon came here, it was carried by the glaciers, a glacial erratic. But there is another possibility…

III. Trade Routes 

As the glaciers regressed, the first people moved into these fertile fields to hunt and fish, to till the rich alluvial soil and grow the food that still feeds the world. The river became an extensive trading route. The mound building cultures rose up before the time of Christ and peaked about 1000 years ago. One thousand years ago one of the largest cities in the world was here near where America’s Great Rivers come together.

Today we talk about the Fertile Crescent as the birth of civilization; some say that Iraq, where the Tigris-Euphrates rivers come together, is where agriculture began. But this is not the whole story. At about the same time that agriculture was developing in the Mid-East, it was also beginning here in the American Bottoms. Where the Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers come together the Mound Builders grew sunflower and burdock. They harvested milkweed silk and wove it into a fine cloth.

Most Western historians focused on their Western, Greco-Roman, European history, because this is the historian’s cultural heritage. Whether they were biased or simply ignorant isn’t clear, but only recently have we begun to appreciate the complex cultures and technology of America’s Midwest. The Native Americans charted the stars, planets, sun and moon allowing them to plot leap year long before Europeans figured out the fact that it takes 365 and a quarter days for the earth to circle the sun. Archeologists have found skulls with a perfect circle cut into the bone, the bone removed and then placed back in to heal; clearly this is not a war wound but some kind of cranial surgery. There is a long period of Mississippian history where there were very few war wounds, broken bones or fractured skulls, as if there were a long period of relative peace. 

Some scholars might argue with this assertion, but there is clear evidence that Peoria, and several other Midwest River Cities are some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. People have lived here continuously for more than 12,000 years! They came here because of the fertile soils, rich opportunities provided by the river and abundance of raw materials for building a civilization.

They traded material goods and cultural ideas with tribes from the four corners of Turtle Island: sea shells and sub-tropical feathers were brought up the Mississippi from the Gulf; obsidian and flint were brought in from the Rockies and Ohio Valley; mica was traded down the Tennessee River, down the Ohio and up the Mississippi; and copper, which was rarely found as a glacial erratic, was also imported from the Keweenaw Peninsula, brought down the shore of Lake Michigan, up the Eschicago River, down the Des Plaines into the Illinois Country. 

The tribes of the Illinois Valley were importing copper and flint, obsidian and seashells, but what were we exporting? We were exporting the same things we export today: corn and beans, corn and beans. These were stored in clay pots, face mugs. Because we can chemically identify the type of clay and where it was mined we know that some of the clay pots found in Ohio were actually made here in Illinois.  In exchange for corn and beans the tribes along the river would purchase flint for arrowheads and copper for headdresses.

IV. Cultural Craftsmen

Whether the copper was imported through these elaborate trading routes or brought down by the glaciers is unclear. One thing that is certain is that the artistry and craftsmanship of this falcon is exquisite. Imagine a lump of raw, unformed copper. The only tools for working this copper were stone and wood, bone and horn. 

The sheet appears to be hand pounded, possibly between two stones. Belying this fact is the incredibly uniform thickness of the entire sheet. It is about the thickness of a dime with very little variation. 

The embossing of the eye, wings, feathers and spotted breast give the falcon a rich sense of detail and three dimensions. Long before Picasso and his theories of cubism, this falcon includes many of the same characteristic of modern art in its abstract symbolism, exaggerated detail, and bilateral asymmetry. At the same time the details of the eye stripe, speckled chest, and talons clearly identify this bird as a peregrine falcon. It is both aesthetically inspiring and scientifically accurate.

Knowing that falcons are the fastest bird on the planet and one the fiercest birds of prey, it is a fitting symbol for the men charged with protecting their village. The Peoria Falcon is believed to have been part of the dance regalia of a warrior. It is thick enough to offer some protection and may have been used as armament, but most archeologists think it was part of a headdress or chest plate worn in ceremonial dances.

Watching a fancy dancer or grass dancer at a modern powwow, it is easy to imagine the graceful, masculine footwork, swirling of feathers and fierce pounce of a dancer as he wears this totemic emblem in the village courtyard.

Because the excavation of this artifact was not done professionally, it was stumbled upon while building a pottery factory, we are not sure whether it was buried with its owner, a gift for the dead to take to the afterworld, or simply lost and buried in the silt of time. What we do know is that the falcon slept in the earth near the banks of the Illinois River for a thousand years.

V. Clay Pots and Whiskey Barons

In the early 1800’s, as America was wandering west, a New England pottery knew that if they were to thrive and grow they would need to follow the settlers over the Alleghenies. This pottery hired a team of geologists to scour the Midwest looking for the best sources of clay for building a new pottery.

Because of the glacial deposits of fine silt it was easy to find good clay in Illinois. 

About the same time that the American Pottery was built, folks in this town began distilling alcohol from corn. Peoria quickly became the whisky capitol of the world. At one time there were more than thirty distilleries and breweries. During the Civil War and for the next 70 years, the lion’s share of the federal whisky tax was paid by the whisky barons in Peoria. In the same way that the OPEC oil cartel has a strong influence on the world’s production of oil and the price per barrel, the Whisky Barons of Peoria worked hard to create an iron fisted grip on the manufacture and sale of distilled spirits.

Peoria is blessed with fertile soil to grow corn, oak forests for making barrels, vast glacial aquifers for clear, clean spring water and Irish and German immigrants who knew how to brew beer and make whisky. Whisky jugs from Peoria pottery have been found on recent excavations along the Oregon Trail.

Just as the Mississippian Mound builders exported corn in clay pots, the whisky barons exported corn whisky in clay jugs.

When they built the pottery along the Illinois River they stumbled upon this amazing artifact. This ancient relic quickly became the symbol of our modern city, but it is here that the story gets cloudy.

VI. Provenance and Museum Politics

One of the men who helped to build the pottery, Sidney Pulsifer, was from Hennepin, Illinois, just upstream from Peoria. A friend of his was a school teacher from Hennepin who later proved himself as a soldier in the Civil War, Major John Wesley Powell. Legend has it that Pulsifer gave this artifact as a gift to Powell. About this time, Powell began to teach at Illinois Wesleyan University in Normal, Illinois. 

Illinois Wesleyan helped to fund Powell’s famous expedition down the Grand Canyon. On this trip he collected thousands of American Indian artifacts, pottery, weavings, tools and art work. This trip made Powell famous. Upon his return, the Smithsonian Institution offered him a position and he took it, taking his collection with him. One of the controversies surrounding this move is this: since Illinois Wesleyan funded the expedition and he was an employee of the university, his collection was rightfully the property of the university, (or so claims an anonymous alumnus who told me this story!)

What is known is that the Peoria Falcon traveled to Washington D.C. There are two documents that track the movement and ownership of the Peoria Falcon and the information these documents contain do not tell the same story. One alludes to the idea that the falcon was a gift; the other says Powell found the artifact. (See 7)

The research of Kelvin Sampson, an archeologist with the Illinois State Museum, provides clear evidence that the falcon was a gift from Sidney Pulsifer. Though Sampson has looked long and hard for documentation, it is still not clear exactly where the Peoria Falcon was found. Most evidence points to the area of Mary and Caroline Streets, where the American Pottery Company was built in 1858.

Though most Peorians are familiar with the symbol emblazoned on our city’s seal and city vehicles, few were familiar with its story. This changed as Peoria began to prepare for its three hundredth anniversary as a European outpost. (Father Marquette and Louis Joliet paddled their canoes up the Illinois River in 1673 and camped here with the Peoria Band of the Illinewek Nation. In 1681, Rene Robert Cavalier de LaSalle built Fort Creve Coeur, the foundation of Peoria as a modern city, making Peoria older than Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and many other East Coast cities.) During Peoria’s Tri-Centennial Celebration a consortium of educators, historians, Native Americans and average citizens began to research Peoria’s history and organize a year of special events. 

The Peoria Falcon was re-discovered, in little more than a shoe box, in the basement of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

 

VII. Rebirth

As part of the tri-centennial celebration, a group of American Indians began organizing one of the first powwows to be held in Peoria since the forced removal of the Illiniwek Indians during the early 1800’s. Like many eastern tribes, The Peoria were forced out to a reservation in Oklahoma, the Indian Territory, in the 1830s. Current tribal elders were contacted and invited to this powwow. Native people of many tribes who call Peoria home were instrumental in organizing what is now an annual event with drumming, dancing, crafts, ceremony and storytelling, Return to Pimiteoui Powwow.

Return to Pimiteoui has quickly garnished a reputation as one of the more inclusive, culturally diverse powwows in the Midwest. Every year they invite elders from different nations to share their wisdom. In addition to the standard powwow events, drumming and dancing, they have established a children’s area with hands-on activities, there is a native encampment and French Voyager display, a wisdom circle for storytelling, craft demonstrations, and a Sunday morning ecumenical service. 

As an outgrowth of this cultural revival, local historian Dr. Peter Couri sparked a campaign to arrange for the Peoria Falcon’s return. Lakeview Museum has been a partner with the Smithsonian Institution since 2000. In this unique relationship the Smithsonian has done a great job of creating partners to share resources, research, art and artifacts, further demonstrating that the Smithsonian Institution is indeed, America’s Attic.

With funding from The Museum Loan Network, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the contracts were signed and a special display was built so the Peoria Falcon could come home. It is now proudly on display just a few miles from where it was crafted, worn in tribal dances, buried, and later found.

***

If the Peoria Falcon could speak, the stories it might tell would include the stories of plate tectonics and volcanoes, the great sheets of ice creeping down from the north and the great rivers of America as highways for commerce, the artistry and symbolism of a superbly skilled craftsman and the elaborate ceremonies of a rich culture, the modern development of Peoria and the relationships between institutions for cultural understanding. But the story that is still being written is the story of a culture rising up and reclaiming its heritage, a celebration of our past that bodes well for our shared futures.

Brian “Fox” Ellis is a professional storyteller, freelance writer, author of The Web at Dragonfly Pond, (Dawn Publications 2006), and the Riverlorian for the Spirit of Peoria riverboat. He would like to dedicate this story to Elida Lakota who gifted him with a replica that she made, and to the Return to Pimiteoi Powwow which inspired this story. He is also indebted to archeologist Kelvin Sampson for his research and review of this article.

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