For Americans of European descent, the deep dive to understand the First Peoples of the Americas demands a deeper sense of history and time than we live with day-to-day. Jeffrey Gibson’s hollow, 21-foot-high ziggurat, encamped for the year on a grassy plain below the castle at the deCordova Museum, is here to acquaint us with our ignorance. A nearby sign pronounces a truth dating from 1492: “You are Standing on Native Land.”
Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and half Cherokee, has chosen the shape of a stepped pyramid to quote the giant, 100-foot-high earthwork hand-built by his Indigenous forebears at Cahokia, in what is now southern Illinois. This great city of the ancient Mississippian civilization scattered along the great river’s Midwestern tributaries, was larger than the Paris of its time. It hosted ritual gatherings, collected tribute and staged extravagant burials for seven centuries until its abandonment a century and a half before Europeans made landfall.