This Indigenous artist is reimagining sustainable urbanism, by tapping into an age-old practice

Burial and effigy mounds were an important part of cultures indigenous to the Midwest region. Now, one Chicago artist is reviving the tradition.

An Indigenous artist in Chicago is reviving the tradition of making mounds
Aerial view of the Coiled Serpent Mound in Horner Park. Drone Optics LLC
An Indigenous artist in Chicago is reviving the tradition of making mounds
Aerial view of the Coiled Serpent Mound in Horner Park. Drone Optics LLC

This Indigenous artist is reimagining sustainable urbanism, by tapping into an age-old practice

Burial and effigy mounds were an important part of cultures indigenous to the Midwest region. Now, one Chicago artist is reviving the tradition.

Effigy mounds, the “foundations of civilization on this continent,” according to Indigenous artist and architect Santiago X, once adorned the otherwise flat Midwest terrain. Used as sacred burial places by some Indigenous cultures, the mounds were sculpted with soil into different shapes that could be seen from overhead.

Despite their importance, no new mounds have been built since settlers arrived on the continent. But X, who is a citizen of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and Indigenous Chamorro from the Island of Guam, has been trying to revitalize the tradition.

“The idea with reinvigorating and reanimating mound-building practices is to start to contemplate sustainable urbanity,” X said. “Start to think about the scars that are introduced to our earth and our world when we’re creating places and, if there’s a way to generate some sort of discourse, some sort of catalyst for the creation of places that are healing instead.”

He’s building his latest project, The Coiled Serpent, in Horner Park and plans to open it to the public in 2023. It will be connected to the Serpent Twin, X’s first mound located in Schiller Woods, via the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers. X and the Chicago Public Art Group were recently awarded the 2021 Joyce Award to support the creation of an augmented reality experience, Augment Earth, that they hope to make available through an interactive exhibit called 4000N.

WBEZ’s Reset sat down with X to discuss his plans to heal Chicago through sustainable urbanism and the purpose behind his latest projects. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On the significance of effigy mounds in Indigenous cultures

X: Mounds are the foundation of civilization on this continent, at least east of the Mississippi River from Minnesota down to Mexico. They are the foundations for culture, ceremonial practice, agriculture, religion, trade. Cities like Cahokia, Ill., right here in this state: At the same time as London in the 1300s, [Cahokia] had a higher population.

On why he chose to reengage with mound-making

X: I had a trajectory in architecture before becoming a full-fledged artist. When I was studying architecture at different universities, I wasn’t being taught about the Indigenous landscape, I wasn’t being taught about Indigenous urbanity and the cities that existed here. Since time immemorial, these cities weren’t being taught. The importance of their footprints, their imprint on the identity of architecture on this continent was something that was being glanced over.

When I see the cityscape of Chicago, what I see is actually colonization and scars introduced through the creation of these skyscrapers. I see huge wounds to be healed.

On what Serpent Twin Mound represents and serpent symbolism

X: Serpent Twin Mound is an artwork that weaves in and out of the earth around you and surrounds you, just in scale. The idea was to create an artwork that would humble humanity in a very perspectival, experiential way, something that would exemplify the power of the serpent symbology — the idea that the serpent weaves in and out of the earth and stitches the earth back together. And to heal and create an opportunity for us to contemplate the connection to self, the connection to the waterways, which these mounds exist by.

The serpent is that being that can hold the earth in its mouth and its grasp. It’s an understanding of this fragility of our ecosystems, the fragility of the Earth, of our own existence.

On his latest Coiled Serpent project

X: We’ve created the earthwork; we’ve created the layers and shaped the earthwork. Now we just have to cover it in Indigenous plants — that we’re still fundraising for — buffalo grasses and different varieties that will create the skin of the coiled serpent. The serpent itself is meant to be a conjoined earthwork with the Serpent Twin Mound in Schiller Woods. The idea of convergence in these earthworks is just like the convergence of rivers, as the Mississippi River grows in strength and its trajectory heads towards Cahokia.

On plans to add an augmented reality experience to the mounds

X: That’s a really exciting part of this project. The idea of creating an earthwork without tangible objects inside of it is a gesture towards the notion of post-humanity, of a world without us.

But the augmented reality elements to these works is to create a living, breathing digital gallery, digital archive of our stories, of stories from Native people in the community, stories of people that have handled the project documentation, of seeing the construction of the earthwork.

As you’re walking up the mountain, you’ll have geolocated experiences, a soundfield. You’ll walk in, and you’ll hear the perpetual drumming of the hand drummer. You’ll hear the jingles of the jingle dress as a dancer is dancing a medicine dance around the base of the coil mound in perpetuity. These experiences create a very immersive, interactive and experiential opportunity for people to learn, grow and educate themselves — to fully immerse themselves in the world we’re envisioning.

Madison Muller is a part-time digital producer for WBEZ. Follow her @g0ingmad.

Lynnea Domienik is a producer for WBEZ’s Reset. Follow her @LDomienik.