Natalia Moonier

Narrative and Image as Memory: An Alternate History of the Alton Piasa Mural Using Indigenous Contexts

April 10, 2021   /  

Name: Natalia V. Moonier
Major: Archaeology
Advisor: Olivia C. Navarro-Farr and Siavash Samei (second reader)

The present study examines the history and Indigenous context of the Piasa Bird, a mural displayed on the bluffs of Alton, Illinois. Known by locals as the “bird that devours men,” the painting is currently placed on cliffs facing the Mississippi River. Today, the figure is hailed as the town’s mascot, and schools feature its infamous myth as part of their local history unit. The image tells a story of brave warriors facing and defeating an impossible foe, their victory commemorated for generations on the limestone bluffs of the Mississippi. However, Indigenous oral traditions relating to its iconography give evidence to a different narrative… and a different creature. Most scholars agree that the Piasa “bird” is instead the Underwater Panther, a water manitou of the Bottom World who is still venerated by many Indigenous peoples today such as the Ojibwe, Cree, Arikara, Osage, etc. The Piasa mural is a fascinating example of multiple dichotomies, including the bridge between ancient and modern, the relationship between narrative and image, and the perpetuation and erasure of cultural memory. I argue that the current myth advertised by the city of Alton has prevented the promotion of its true Indigenous history, and that the archaeological method and its frameworks can be used as a means to enrich the history of Alton and its ancestral inhabitants.

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Natalia will be online to field comments on April 16:
2-4pm EDT (PST: 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

33 thoughts on “Narrative and Image as Memory: An Alternate History of the Alton Piasa Mural Using Indigenous Contexts”

  1. Congratulations on this fabulous project, Natalia, and on your upcoming graduation! I’m so proud of what you’ve accomplished!

    1. Hello Dr. Cosgriff! Thank you so very much for taking the time to visit my page and look at my research! I am so very thankful for all of the classes that I took with you, and for all of your encouragement and guidance. Have a wonderful day!

  2. This was a fascinating I.S. Natalia, and it was a pleasure to be a second reader on it! Congrats!!

    1. Hello Dr. Samei! It was a pleasure to have you as my second reader. I really enjoyed our conversation surrounding it, and would love to continue it at any time! Have a wonderful day!

    1. Hello Dr. Derderian! Thank you so much for taking the time to visit this page and look at my research. I hope you have a wonderful day!

  3. That was great Natalia! Super interesting and close to home. Well done! Enjoy the last days of your time at Wooster.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to look at my research! This project has been such an amazing experience, and I cannot wait to continue this research. I hope you have a wonderful day, and thank you again for stopping by!

    1. Thank you so much Dr. Morrow! I really appreciate you stopping by to look at my research! I am so thankful for all of the time that I have spent in your classes these last few years. The violets are doing amazing by the way – they sincerely appreciate your help as well! Have an amazing day!

  4. Congratulations on this wonderful and important project, Natalia!
    I also LOVE the inclusion of the oral narratives as something for the audience to read and follow.
    Well done!

    1. Thank you so much for coming by, Dr. Navarro-Farr. I greatly appreciate all of your help and guidance in developing this study, which has helped me realize my passion in the developing iconographic sect of archaeology. I have always enjoyed our conversations and meetings, and I sincerely hope they continue in the future! I hope you and your family are having a wonderful day!

  5. Very interesting and insightful. Why did you choose this as the subject for your IS? Why did this call to you?

    1. Hello, and thank you for your question!

      I actually grew up less than an hour away from this mural, and I still regularly visit Alton when I am able to come home. I remember when I was younger, I was very skeptical of the mural’s presentation, but no other explanations were given except for the famous account written by John Russell. About two years ago, I happened to visit the nature center at Pere Marquette State Park, which included a very brief exhibit on the Piasa’s history. This featured the original map drawing of Jean-Baptiste-Louis de Franquelin (the black and white photo under the “Background and Historical Context” section of my poster) as well as the translation of the Marquette journal account. Another picture of a shell artifact was placed next to it, explaining the creature as the Cherokee “Uktena,” but no other context or analysis was given as far as I remember. I took a picture of the exhibit, promptly researched Uktena narratives, and wondered why people had so many questions about this seemingly mysterious figure when the history and answers lay right within the Indigenous communities themselves.

      I hope this sheds some light on my research formation and process; please let me know if you would like any more information!

      1. A post-note on my previous comment:

        This study was originally going to focus on Mississippian Bottom World (i.e. underwater panther and snake) imagery and iconography on shell artifacts, which is a similar topic to my Junior IS. However, when I went back home during the winter break, I visited Alton and was reminded of the fascinating history of this mural. Everything just clicked for me while I sat in the car looking at it, and I contacted my advisor that same day to tell her I wanted to narrow my subject and focus on using the iconographic method to elevate this Indigenous narrative. I am so happy I followed my instincts and pursued it!

  6. Congrats on this project Natalia! This is really fascinating and love commentary on appropriation and how communities misrepresent indigenous peoples.

    1. Thank you so much for coming by, Max! It is a very fascinating subject, because (thanks to one man) the entire dynamic of this being has been changed and characterized (appropriated, as you said) into an entirely different creature with a different meaning than those who originally created it. This is certainly a topic I would like to pursue further.

  7. Congratulations, Natalia! This is such interesting research and I loved learning how you came to this research topic in your comments above 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment and for coming by to look at my research! I love discussing it and am very excited to talk about how it came to be. Have a lovely day 🙂

  8. Congratulations, Natalia! I’m proud that you were able to share your passion with the world. This is only the beginning!

    1. Thanks Dad! You and Mom are honestly the reason for this passion – it all began with your stories of the Piasa and you two taking me to Alton so I could see it for the first time when I was around ten. All of our vacations and *educational detours* have played at least some role in this study, and to me that makes it all the more meaningful and important… sort of like a childhood diary in a way. I love you, and can’t wait to see you two again!

  9. Natalia, it’s so exciting to see the culmination of this research that you’ve been so devoted to for so long! This is really well done. I think I can speak for ASC when I say we are proud of our Madame Co-President!

    1. Hey Anabelle, thank you so much for stopping by!!! All of you lovely people in ASC (past and present) have been such an amazing network of support. I cannot wait to see what you do in your research next year!

  10. Wow, what a fascinating project, Natalia! Has this image been commodified in and around this town – perhaps on clothing or souvenirs? In advertising this image as the “town’s mascot,” what claims do you think non-Native residents are making? Are they erasing more troublesome histories? You don’t have to answer all of these questions here – I’m just really interested interested in your research and am looking forward to learning more about this from you in your thesis. Congratulations on this important work!!

    1. Hello Dr. Thomas!

      I love these questions! The image of the Piasa has certainly been commodified everywhere – clothing, souvenirs, shop names, street names, and I remember even looking at an illustrated children’s book that focused on the Russell myth.

      I have come to realize that in this image perpetuation and popularity, the false narrative has been hailed as truth (if not truth, then it is considered the only knowable explanation regarding the original painting Marquette saw). I remember watching an interview in which the contributor (a local historian who only commented on the Russell history) mentioned that the “Native American story” was taught as part of the Alton history unit in the local middle school. Therefore, I see this as the major problem surrounding the mural today – any explanation given about its history focuses on this given narrative (written by a non-indigenous person claiming it to be a long-held indigenous tradition). Therefore, I believe that its original origins as the Underwater Panther should at the very least be discussed or given their own plaque or exhibit, because as I have realized, this being is significantly tied to the landscape.

      Especially considering the enemy of the Underwater Panther is the Thunderbird, the fact that he has been turned into such a birdlike figure and even considered a “thunderbird” (especially in travel websites) is offensive and extremely problematic. Unfortunately, we see similar parallels in the forced relocation of these Indigenous peoples throughout history – it is a fascinating analogy of the settler taking precedence over the Indigenous in which the Piasa has removed the Panther entirely from the narrative, and ultimately, his own land. We have discussed many examples such as this in your Peoples and Cultures of Native America class, which provided many frameworks of understanding for this study; for that, I am extremely thankful.

      Please let me know if you have any other questions! If possible I would love to discuss this topic with you further and perhaps discuss some other of these incidents that would aid in future research!

      Have a wonderful day!

      1. Hi again, Natalia – thank you for answering these questions! These are such great insights. I’d love to talk to you more about this. Send me an email anytime and we can catch up, whether its before or after you graduate. Congrats again!

  11. As someone who is doing their I.S. based on alternative narratives, I thought this project was just really cool. Well done Natalia!

    1. Hey Jackson! Thank you so much for stopping by! I can’t wait to see what research you do in the coming years!

  12. Amazing job, Natalia! It’s so cool to finally see what you’ve been working on all these months, and as always you’ve surpassed my expectations. Like Anabelle said, I am incredibly proud of you. Thanks for being someone I can look up to in our department–you’d better come back to visit after you graduate, even if it’s just to draw on the chalk board in the lab.

    1. Thank you so much for those kind and lovely words, Olivia <3 You better believe I will be visiting again to draw glyphs on the board! You can't get rid of me that easily, do not worry. Love you all so much!

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