Labrecque on Allen, 'Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts'

Chadwick Allen
Annabel Labrecque

Chadwick Allen. Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts. Indigenous Americas Series. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022. 424 pp. $140.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5179-1232-1; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5179-1233-8

Reviewed by Annabel Labrecque (University of California, Berkeley) Published on H-Environment (September, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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A neon blue embryo stands suspended in prismatic strata. Supple grass, dense wildflowers, and blooming trees abound against a deep purple sky. A bird prepares to make a landing on an energetic earth. At the center of this living landscape is a mound, itself a monument to the depth and dynamism of Indigenous ingenuity. This mound, represented in Alyssa Hinton’s electrifying artwork Ancestral Plane (1998), is one of the many featured in Chadwick Allen’s Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts. Constituting the book’s cover, Hinton’s Ancestral Plane promises a lively discussion of Indigenous earthworks. And Allen delivers. With thorough literary analysis, original artistic interpretation, and innovative interdisciplinary research, he explores the past, present, and future of Indigenous earthworks and their looming presence in Native arts and literature.

Archaeological, anthropological, historical, and literary representations of earthworks have manufactured a mythology of mystery. Captivating what Allen calls the “white imaginary” are questions of who built earthworks, where they came from, what happened to these mound builders, and why their creations fell into disuse—inquiries that relegate these genuinely remarkable representations of Indigenous creativity, engineering, and earthly engagement to a distant past. Allen offers a different approach, one that “acknowledge[s] earthworks as modes of land-writing, as raised earthen scripts of encoded knowledge” (p. 27). More than effigies and mortuary mounds, earthworks were created with the intention of organizing space, orienting movement, and establishing equilibrium between earthly and beyond earthly planes. Colonization destroyed many of the thousands of these earthworks across eastern North America, but the power of their presence is hardly past. Allen centers the work of contemporary Native scholars, writers, and artists who “acknowledge the realities of ongoing Indigenous relationships to ancient earthworks and to enduring earthworks principles” (p. 30).

Rather than proceeding chronologically, Earthworks Rising takes organizational inspiration from its titular phenomenon as Allen “evokes the three-worlds theory of mound-building cultures—an above world, a surface world, and a below world” (p. 31). Part 1 focuses on effigy mounds—namely, the Serpent Mound in southern Ohio and Alligator Mound in central Ohio—and their representation in Native poetry, performance art, and sculpture. Allen lends close attention to the animation of mounds in poet Allison Hedge Coke’s book Blood Run (2006) and artist Jimmie Durham’s installation The Banks of the Ohio (1992), exploring how effigy mounds function to connect worlds below to worlds above. Part 2 brings readers back to earth’s surface at Cahokia. Allen uses Phillip Carroll Morgan’s novel Anompolichi: The Wordmaster (2014) to consider how to effectively engage with “Indigenous earthworks cities like Cahokia ... in ways they were known, understood, or imagined by the peoples who planned, constructed, and first experienced them” (p. 167). Allen refuses the unknowability of thousand-year-old architectural vocabularies that undergird earthworks, arguing instead that “earthworks vocabularies” remain as relevant and instructive today as they were a thousand years ago. The author’s interludes at Aztalan (built over a thousand years ago) and the Chickasaw Cultural Center (built in the past few decades) demonstrate “that while earthworks are part of very old Southeastern cultures, they are also part of living vocabularies and worldviews” (p. 192). In part 3, Allen argues for a reconsideration of burial mounds—which for many “signal loss” and herald doom”—as places “that announce regeneration” (p. 242). Some burial mounds functioned reproductively, while others acted as vaults securing temperamental forces from the surrounding world. Each of Allen’s three sections concludes with a coda that offers readers the opportunity to understand the author’s changing relationship to earthworks and their many representations.

By centering Indigenous intellectual work, Allen offers a long overdue contribution to existent academic literature on earthworks. Readers familiar with contemporary Indigenous literature may recognize the poetry of Hedge Coke and Margaret Noodin or the historical fiction of Morgan and LeAnne Howe. Supplementing these vivid literary depictions of earthworks is visual art by Durham and Hinton as well as modern Indigenous architecture in Oklahoma; though Allen is a literary scholar, his analysis of visual art and architecture, quite literally, grounds his textual analysis. Readers may also appreciate Allen’s engagement with performance art (Monique Mojica makes frequent appearances) and embodied interaction at mounds in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

While Native literature and arts constitute the foundation of Earthworks Rising, Allen devotes considerable and critical attention to prevailing archaeological, anthropological, and historical interpretations of mound building. Certain materials and methods, he acknowledges, have positively expanded academics’ understandings of earthworks; such “aerial-based technologies” as light detection and ranging (LiDAR) and Global Positioning System (GIS) data central to modern archaeological fieldwork have helped “to conceptualize more precisely the specific siting, geometric patterning, and celestial alignments of individual earthworks and earthworks complexes” (p. 19). Archaeological data, Allen argues, only goes so far to demystify the true life of mounds. Descendant engagements with ancestral earthworks remain underrepresented and underappreciated in academic work, and thus earthworks remain relics of a distant, disjoined past—items to be investigated rather than places to be protected. This tension, palpable throughout Earthworks Rising, underscores the text’s urgently needed interventions and justifies Allen’s creative juxtaposition of various media and materials. Allen carefully and convincingly reveals how “a patriarchal, non-Native insistence, an authoritative settler monologue ... seeks to overpower all other voices, all other visions and understandings” of the purpose, place, and power of earthworks—and yet “cannot—at least not fully” (p. 330).

Earthworks Rising is further elevated by Allen’s innovative organizational and analytical approach. Rather than tracing the rise, fall, and revival of earthworks linearly across space and over time, Allen organizes his book around different types of mounds; their historic and contemporary function; and the distinctive kinds of life, art, and literature they have inspired among the descendants of their original builders. Mound building, as Allen shows, required immense care and calculation. He honors these intentions with informed construction of his own text and his treatment of other texts, too. Allen’s precision is palpable from start to finish—in his mathematically precise analysis of Hedge Coke’s poem “Snake Mound,” his comparative mapping of Timothy Pauketat’s Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi (2009) and Morgan’s Anompolichi, and in his excavation of John Egan’s painted interpretation of burial mounds. This close analysis—one that appreciates both space and specifics, both content and context—dispels the myth of haphazardly planned, enigmatic mounds that have long captured the white (settler) imaginary. Whether with words or woven baskets, sentences or sediment, Native creators like Allen (and those featured throughout Earthworks Rising) demonstrate the perpetually generative power of mound building.

As its title suggests, Earthworks Rising focuses largely on creative, generative processes of mound building. But creation is only part of the story. As Allen notes, “in the North American context, thousands of earthen mounds, embankments, and enclosures remain extant, although often obscured, eroded, or desecrated, sometimes partially or wholly destroyed, and occasionally reconstructed” (p. 10). This history of destruction and desecration seems ripe for further analysis and explanation but is not addressed in much detail until chapter 5. Allen may have expanded earlier, for instance, on how archaeology’s colonialism—evident in the objectification of Indigenous subjects, theft and destruction of land and patrimony, and self-allowed entitlement to Indigenous pasts—has physically remade relationships to eastern North American earthworks. This need only constitute part of a much longer, more dynamic history of earthworks that Allen aims to recover. The life of earthworks long predates colonization, as do dynamic shifts in regional authority, land use, and political power. This is precisely what makes Allen’s engagement with Morgan’s Anompolichi, which takes place in 1399, so rich. Morgan’s book explores how a white European man stumbles into and through a changing Indigenous world. The white European interlocutor becomes increasingly marginalized throughout the story; in doing so, “Morgan overturns the common structure of marking a shift from North American ‘prehistory’ to ‘history’” and creatively defies colonial teleology (p. 185). Indigenous nations, cities, and communities were societies in motion long and immediately prior to colonial incursion. This was the world from which earthworks emerged, and presumably one in which many earthworks periodically fell into disuse. How did relationships to earthworks change when new powers arose, when people moved, when climates change? On the reverse, how did people change when they encountered, created, or abandoned earthworks? An earthworks expert, Allen is well positioned to speculate further on a precolonial past of earthworks equally dynamic as their present.

With engaging prose and calculated analysis, Allen’s Earthworks Rising entices readers away from the static diorama and the black-and-white textbook page and toward earthworks themselves. Without touching a trowel, Allen unearths thousand-year-old histories of Indigenous ingenuity. Fans and practitioners of contemporary Native literature and arts will appreciate his productive engagement with various artistic media. Archaeologists will benefit from his critical insights concerning the place and power of mounds within broader material contexts. Environmental historians will learn much from his attentiveness to space, place, and relationality, while historians of Indigenous North America will be inspired by his mobilization of Indigenous pasts in the service and interest of Indigenous futures. Quoting Anishinaabe poet Margaret Noodin, Allen writes that “‘paths into the past,’ aazhawa’zhiwebag, become paths into the future,” directions and movements oriented by earthworks at once ancient and still very much alive. Allen’s tour (de force) of North America’s first great architectural accomplishments thus invites us to renew through reflection: “we ‘return to what happened’ so that we might begin again” (p. 231).

Citation: Annabel Labrecque. Review of Allen, Chadwick, Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022. URL:

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