A Walk in Walker’s Shoes
A Rich History at Poverty Point, Louisiana
Poverty Point National Historic Site gained more than an employee when Eric Walker signed on as an Interpretive Ranger in 2006. Starting out as a Louisiana history teacher, Walker has a passion for both his state and the ghost of its past. For Walker, sharing what is known about the ancient history of his home state is more than a career; it’s a calling. With a soft smile and bright eyes Walker welcomes visitors to the park and offers years of knowledge about the property and its former people. His favorite part of the job is the interactions he has with the visitors, especially teaching school groups and young kids. “Seeing how they enjoy coming out here and being a part of this place that’s so ancient and so old is really important to me,” he says, voice ringing with sincere enthusiasm for his work.
Turning down a long straight road, grass flanked the vans as we approached the park. Man-made hills pierced the horizon and a small lightly colored building came into focus. Decorated with windows, the visitor center announced itself with darkly stained wooden signs engraved with large yellow letters. Standing at the door, Eric Walker ushered us into the building with a friendly hello and directed us politely toward the theater. A twenty-minute film gave us an introduction into the long history of Poverty Point priming us for the tram ride exploration of the property that followed.
Located in Northeastern Louisiana, Poverty Point is home to the oldest earthworks of their size in the entire Western Hemisphere. Thousands of years after its first inhabitants abandoned the area, the land was bought by Philip Gayer who had successfully cultivated land nearby and hoped to expand his harvest. Disappointed with the lack of fertile soil, he dubbed the property “Poverty Point,” an ironic name for what now attracts people from across the country to witness the wealth of history and culture that hides amid the mystery of the uniquely landscaped property.
Speckled with mounds, the should-be flat landscape struck people as odd as early as 1840. For years the property found presence in tales of outlaw Jesse James. Walker explained — skepticism weakly hidden — that according to legends, James’ treasure is buried among the ancient artifacts of the Native American people. Fact or fiction, the legends of Jesse James dominate a small corner of the visitor center adding action to antiquity at Poverty Point.
The native people of Poverty Point were sophisticated — a society stable enough to afford the luxury of extensive dwellings and recreation. If straightened, the ridges would stretch 7.5 miles long and stand 4 feet tall. The center plaza, an area used for dances, games and celebrations, spans 37 acres. The most impressive earthwork, however, is Poverty Point’s biggest attraction: the Bird Mound. Reaching 72 feet in height, the Bird Mound used about 10 million baskets of dirt, all carried on foot. Walker led us off the tram and up a trail to the apex of Bird Mound. Long skinny structures stretched East to West and a thicker formation reached North to South. An aerial view of the area reveals a giant bird, 710 feet long with a wingspan 600 feet. From the top of the mound the whole property lay in sight before us.
Yet while the mounds offer us an above-ground glimpse into the history of Poverty Point, mystery remains as only 1% of the park has been excavated. No human remains have been found leaving questions about the inhabitants themselves. Walker tells us that we rely instead on the cultural artifacts scattered within the excavated portion of the property.
Of all the artifacts found at Poverty Point, the atlatl is a favorite of visitors. After the tram tour, Walker led an atlatl demonstration, using the perfectly weighted tool to facilitate spear throwing. As Walker sent the spear soaring, his beaming smile and modest acknowledgment of our praise invited some friendly competition. After watching, the whole IFP group got to take turns launching the spear — and in some cases the atlatl — across a field in the hopes of boasting the longest launch.
The longevity of tradition is where true value is found at the improperly named Poverty Point. When asked what he thinks is the most important takeaway for visitors, Walker responded: “The age of this place. This was actually going on around the same time as the pyramids were being built over in Egypt.” Pride began to sneak into his voice as he excitedly added, “It’s something here in America, and right here in Louisiana, that’s that old.”