The final afternoon of the 2013 National Reservation Economic Summit brought the proceedings full circle, with a concluding keynote address that reminded attendees about lessons from Cahokia, and the enduring theme of this year’s Summit: Honoring Our Past – Defining Our Future.
“Throughout Native history, we’ve been told many versions of who we are,” began Jim Gray, former Chief of the Osage Nation, as he half-jokingly posted images of a Victoria’s Secret model and entertainer Gwen Stefani, dressed as Indians. “If we don’t grab our story, and we let others do it for us, what happens is people think we don’t exist, that what we are is there for other people to define.”
Gray went on to remind attendees of a true story from our history: the Cahokia. Few doubt the reasons the Mississippian culture flourished: waterways facilitated trade, and precious minerals abounded. The Mounds represent the largest archeological site in North America north of Mexico. By 1,000 AD, the community in and around the mounds boasted large communal plazas, grand architecture, elaborate pottery and established religious, ceremonial and residential infrastructure. By AD 1250, Cahokia was larger than London. Corn was grown in such abundance that it fed up to 20,000 people – and yielded a surplus. The culture was so powerful that it is believed to spread throughout the surrounding region and into the Midwest.
“What it was is the Wall Street of its day,” Gray said, “that era that so many of us, genetically, are still connected to. I hope you can see the connection to us. That was who we were, and that’s who we are. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to those people who we are descended from, to get that story right.”
Few people are certain why Cahokia faltered. Some say that Cahokia fell because of environmental issues, or loss of timber access, Gray said, adding: “We may never know the complete answer, but I think the important question is: Why are we still here, despite 400 years of colonization?”
Gray said he sees the Reservation Economic Summit as evidence that Native people have not only survived; we’ve flourished.
“We thrive,” he said. “We’re bigger today that at any time in history. We’re more successful. You’d have to go all the way back to Cahokia to find a similar period of time when our people were doing so well.”
Gray urged attendees to not give up.
“Evolve,” he said. “Grow out of all of this. Don’t be afraid to change. But always remember you’re descendants of people who built civilizations.”
The 27th Annual Reservation Economic Summit drew to an energetic close with a phenomenal video produced by the RES TV crew, which captured memorable moments from the week. And newly appointed NCAIED Board Chairman Derrick Watchman, who is also the CEO for the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, made the conference’s final remarks.
“I’m hoping that everyone has had an opportunity to meet people, to make contacts, to get business, to get procurement That’s what the RES conference is all about,” he said. “Come back next year. We’ll do it bigger and better.”