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Caddo Mounds historic site reopens 5 years after it was destroyed by a tornado

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Texas takes its name from the Native American word taysha, which means friend. The word comes from Caddo tribe, whose members once lived and farmed across parts of the American South from Arkansas and Louisiana to northeast Texas. Five years ago, one of their historic sites and burial grounds was destroyed by a tornado. As Sean Saldana with the Texas Standard tells us, the site has just reopened.

SEAN SALDANA, BYLINE: The Caddo mounds are an archaeological site that sit on a prairie near the Neches River in the piney woods of east Texas. The three grassy mounds here range from 4 to 20 feet tall and may have once helped support a community of about 200. Archaeologists believe they were used for ceremonies, burials and temples. And for generations, they have drawn people in from across Texas.

ADAM PAGE: I used to come here as a kid. We had school trips out here, so I thought I'd bring my son.

SALDANA: Adam Page (ph) is here for the reopening of the only prehistoric site operated by the Texas Historical Commission. His son, Ethan (ph), is getting to throw spears with an atlatl. Turns out Ethan is pretty good with ancient hunting tools.

I saw you pop that hay bale about three times. How do you feel you did?

ETHAN: Good but not terrible because I still missed about more than half my shots.

SALDANA: This day, it's sunny, around 90 degrees. And the mood at Caddo Mounds is cheerful. But five years ago, disaster struck when a powerful tornado hit the site on Caddo Culture Day, an annual celebration in honor of the Indigenous community that called this place home. The museum on-site was entirely destroyed. One person died and some 40 were badly injured, including several who had to be airlifted to a hospital.

VICTOR GALAN: I was in the building closest to where the tornado hit.

SALDANA: Victor Galan is an archaeologist and a member of the Friends of Caddo Mounds, a nonprofit that helps maintain and promote the site.

GALAN: I was basically picked up with the tornado and slammed down on my head or into a wall headfirst. And that paralyzed me from the shoulders down.

SALDANA: Right after the disaster, Texas lawmakers quickly allocated $2.5 million to rebuild. And after five years of reconstruction, the Caddo Mounds have a new museum, visitor center and replica grass house.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Vocalizing).

SALDANA: One of the big events of the day was a performance by five Caddo drummers who played for a crowd of some 200. Like many Native communities, the Caddo have a strong oral tradition that's kept alive by people like Michael Meeks, who was one of the drummers.

MICHAEL MEEKS: The song that we sing was our Caddo veteran song. We sing that to honor all of our veterans for the sacrifices they've made.

SALDANA: The grand reopening of the Caddo Mounds finished with a tour led by Victor Galan, who guides a crowd of about 30 in his electric wheelchair.

GALAN: Everyone who's interested in the archaeological tour, we're about to start. We're gonna go on the trails behind me.

SALDANA: He explains that here, Caddo farmed crops such as maize, squash and tobacco. Archaeologists have worked on this site for decades, but Galan notes that much of early Caddo life is still a mystery.

GALAN: There are things that we don't like to say will never be found, but there are things that are very hard or maybe nigh impossible to find.

SALDANA: Historic sites like the Caddo Mounds are a reminder that long before Europeans set foot in the area, civilization existed in the Americas.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Saldana in east Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sean Saldana
Sean Saldana is a production assistant for Morning Edition.