On Deborah Stratman's The Illinois Parables Suite
Written by Jack Schneider
“Let’s face it. What counts is knowledge. And feeling. You see, there is such a thing as feeling tone. One is friendly and one is hostile. And if you don't have this, baby, you’ve had it. You’re dead.”
Nancy Dickerson in Studs Terkel’s Division Street: America
Essay Section 1
Deborah Stratman's The Illinois Parables (2016) opens with a panoramic shot, the camera floating above a great plain. Rectilinear patches of grey, green, and brown are crossed by winding roads and rivers; the scene has a quintessentially Midwestern feel. This god's-eye view marks the beginning of Stratman's equally expansive film, which is the focus of the artist and filmmaker's exhibition, Chicago Works: Deborah Stratman, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Across eleven chapters (or "parables"), Stratman chronicled the history of the state guided by an understanding that people are not separate from or in opposition to their environment, but are part of it. In the film Stratman traveled to what she describes as "thin" places, sites where the depth of history is palpable, where the boundary between present and past—as well as nature and culture—is indeed thin. The Parables can be understood as a case study of the Anthropocene, the proposed new geological epoch wherein humans have become the primary force of change on the Earth's landscape. Throughout the film Stratman showed how people have marked the landscape of Illinois, her home state, and how this landscape has in turn marked those who have called it home.
On the occasion of the exhibition, Stratman created an extension of the film—a twelfth chapter, annex, or coda—in the form of a sculptural installation and audio program titled Feeling Tone. The installation is a replica of Louis "Studs" Terkel's radio booth from the WFMT headquarters in downtown Chicago and is accompanied by a selection of 143 of the oral historian's interviews. With Feeling Tone, Stratman considered the landscape not just as a geological artifact but as a collection of voices. While broad in scope, Stratman's historical account of the land known as Illinois is necessarily a partial one—an eclectic anthology of stories of which this essay is but a brief introduction.
Unlike many traditional Western historical accounts of North America, the Parables does not begin at the moment of colonial contact, with all moments prior designated as "prehistoric." Rather chapter I is about some of Illinois' Indigenous inhabitants, the Mississippians. For this scene Stratman focused on what remains of the Mississippian's pre-Columbian civilization in the postcolonial landscape; namely, the Cahokia Mounds. At its peak between 1100 and 1200 AD, the human population of the ancient city of Cahokia was approximately 20,000. Cahokia's infrastructure consisted of over one hundred rammed-earth mounds of varying shapes and sizes laid out in an elaborate grid plan aligned to the four cardinal directions. The mounds were used for ceremonies and sporting events as well as housing for societal elites. The Mississippian civilization declined in the 13th century, and the site was given its current name by French colonial explorers who in the 17th century encountered the Cahokia, an Illiniwek tribe that lived in the area at that time.
Part of the rationale behind designating pre-Columbian cultures and civilizations as "prehistoric" is that some don't have written languages. However, Stratman understands that the mounds at Cahokia are historical documents, written not in text but in earth. One of the first images we see of the mounds is shot from a paved lot with the banal outlines of parking spots bisecting the frame. While the mounds may be firsthand Mississippian documents, today they can only be experienced within a postcolonial framework. Across the first three chapters of the film, Stratman showed us that the American landscape is inextricably tangled with its colonial history.
Essay Section 2
Access to history is limited to the perspective of historians. Inasmuch as the Parables is a journey through a history-laden landscape, it is also an examination of historicity. At the outset of chapter II, we see a sketch made by French colonial explorer Louis Joliet. The sketch documents an Illiniwek mural of a composite, chimera-like creature painted on a limestone bluff. Joliet and Jacques Marquette encountered the murals on their 1673 expedition down the Mississippi River. In a journal description, which Stratman included as a voiceover in her film, Marquette described the sight:
They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish's tail.
In Stratman's film, Joliet's sketch is followed by an image of the present-day historical site in Alton, Illinois, which includes a crude restoration of the original mural—the latest in a long line of such efforts dating back to the 1920s. The restored mural differs from Joliet's sketch and Marquette's description in numerous ways: most notably, the creature in the restoration has sprouted wings. In an 1863 publication, Alton resident John Russel popularized the idea that the original mural depicted a Piasa, which according to Russel's bungled account was a "bird that devours men" in Illiniwek folklore. However, the wingless creature depicted in Joliet's sketch of the original mural is in fact far more consistent with Native American iconography of the underwater panther, a supernatural being that lived in the deepest parts of lakes and rivers. Regardless, today the mural is popularly known as the Piasa Bird.
In chapter II we see how multiple layers of historical interpretation—by colonial explorers, fraudulent storytellers, and amateur conservationists—amounts to a misunderstanding of Illiniwek culture. This is one specific example of the systemic misrepresentation of Native North Americans in the postcolonial United States.
Essay Section 3
Chapter III opens at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, where we see dusty, life-size diorama replicas of plants, animals, and people with a plasticky sheen against trompe-l'oeil painted backdrops. While intended as a tool to educate Illinoisians and tourists about the land's Indigenous inhabitants, the exhibit incorrectly suggests that the people and culture on display are dead—the exhibit's title is Peoples of the Past, after all. These dioramas, which debuted in 1984, follow a familiar format for Native North American displays at museums throughout the United States. The hidden violence of such exhibits is their symbolic erasure of contemporary Native North Americans, descendants of these "people of the past," who continue to live throughout the state and the country despite ongoing colonial subjugation. 
Essay Section 4
Furthermore, these displays—especially when presented in the context of natural history museums—position Indigenous people alongside nonhuman animals and plants. These groups then are set opposite Western people on the archaic nature vs. culture divide, effectively reifying the colonial-era distinction between "savage" and "civilized" societies.
This racist worldview served as justification for a wide array of atrocities throughout the colonial era. Indigenous scholar Roger Buffalohead discussed the "savage" myth in an interview with Studs Terkel—one of the interviews that Stratman included in Feeling Tone (2020). Buffalohead said, "The myth served a function in American society as it developed, it provided a rationale for the dispossession of Indians of their lands," such as the dispossession of Cherokee land in the southeastern United States and the forced migration of the Cherokee across the Midwest to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Stratman explored this event, known as the Trail of Tears, in chapter III.
While making the Parables, Stratman visited sites along the historic migration route like Golconda, the town along the southeastern border of Illinois where the Cherokee crossed the Ohio River into Illinois on December 3, 1838. Portions of the historic route have been inscribed into the landscape as infrastructure, becoming trails and roads paved with concrete and asphalt. In the film, we see the same snow-covered expanses the Cherokee traversed during a particularly frigid winter 178 years earlier. The majority of the estimated 2,000–8,000 deaths that occurred along the Trail of Tears happened in the three months the Cherokee spent crossing Illinois. Today the Cherokee Nation is the largest Native North American tribe in the United States.
Essay Parts 4 and 5
In 1839, as the Cherokee crossed the Mississippi River exiting Illinois, another marginalized group was settling in the state after having experienced their own exodus. Chapter IV of the Parables tells the story of the Church of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Nauvoo was founded by Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. as a refuge following the Mormon War of 1838, which forced the church and its people out of Missouri. By 1845, the population of Nauvoo had ballooned to an estimated 12,000 people, about the size of contemporaneous Chicago. According to local historians Elder Everest and Sister Everest, whose account is included as voiceover in the film, around this time the Mormons began voting as a bloc which "began to take the accustomed political power of the old settlers of Hancock county away from them, and that aroused more than just curiosity, that aroused anger." Anti-Mormon sentiment flared in neighboring communities and church leaders were jailed in nearby Carthage, Illinois. Shortly thereafter an angry mob stormed the jail, assassinating Smith and his brother.
Following the assassination of Smith, arsonists burned buildings throughout Nauvoo, including the Mormon temple which is illustrated in the Parables with C. C. A. Christensen's (Danish, 1831–1912) painting Burning of the Temple (c. 1878). By 1846, the Mormons were forced out of Nauvoo. A century and a half later in 2003, the Mormons staked their claim on the land once again by rebuilding their temple.
Essay Section 6 through 8
As the Mormons departed, they left a political and spatial vacuum in their wake—chapter V tells the story of those who filled it. Two years after the Mormons left Nauvoo, a contingent of French colonists led by political theorist Etienne Cabet settled in the town. Cabet renamed it Icaria after the fictional utopian society he wrote about in his 1840 novel The Voyage to Icaria. Cabet's novel described a society wherein all things were shared communally, including property and food; even children were raised collectively by the community. Icaria was to be the real-world manifestation of Cabet's dream society.
While the Icarians successfully developed a functional society, their population never reached the numbers that their Mormon predecessors had. Despite their unusual ideas and values, they never became a serious political threat to the neighboring communities the way the Mormons had. Rather than being forced out, the demise of the Icarians was due to internal discord. Chapters IV and V show us that the landscape of Illinois is historically contested territory, not just between Indigenous people and colonial powers, but between dominant and minority political, religious, and ideological groups of many kinds.
While many historical accounts might consider land to be an inert stage upon which struggles between human actors play out, in the Parables Stratman reminded us that nonhuman forces are not to be discounted as active agents in shaping history. This is most evident in chapter VI, which describes the Tri-State Tornado, a mile-wide monster that tore through southwestern Missouri, southern Illinois, and southwestern Indiana in 1925. Archival footage of the aftermath included in the Parables shows how the tornado scraped across the landscape, destroying nearly everything in its path. A voiceover of a woman describes how her pet parrot was found perched upon the ruins of her former home, covered in soot "as black a crow" and singing the hymn "Sweet Hour of Prayer," a version of which Stratman also included in the film. The disaster claimed the lives of over 800 people and left 15,000 more homeless. It was a karmic dispossession of life and land by the nonhuman force of the weather.
Essay Section 7
A tornado is a particularly explicit—and particularly Midwestern—example of how nonhuman forces shape history. But nonhuman forces govern our lives from the macrocosmic scale of climate to the microcosmic scale of the atom. Chapter VII of the Parables focuses on how the Atomic Age began with an experiment in Illinois.
In the Parables we see a series of stone markers from the United States Department of Energy in the Red Gate Woods of southwestern Chicago. Part commemorative plaque and part warning sign, the markers tell the story of Chicago Pile-1, the reactor that created the first sustained artificial nuclear chain reaction. The reaction occurred at the University of Chicago in 1942, under the direction of American-Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. Audio included in the Parables from a 1960s educational film describes the experiment in utopian terms: "CP-1: The Day Tomorrow Began." The experiments were a crucial step in the Manhattan Project, the US government's effort to develop nuclear weapons during World War II. The markers in Red Gate Woods note that potentially dangerous radioactive remains from CP-1, as well as the subsequent CP-2 and CP-3 reactors, are buried at the site.
Tellingly, the words of warning carved into the stones are in the English language, as if their creators couldn't imagine a future where non–English speaking people would encounter the site. But if there's any lesson to take away from Stratman's film, it's that possession is ephemeral. With the existential threats of climate change and a renewed nuclear arms race, the likelihood of this particular ruin outlasting our civilization seems more than possible. While nothing is truly permanent, the materials buried at the site are remarkably close—at least from a human perspective. Some of the nuclear waste buried here will remain radioactive for at least 24,000 years.
The initial optimism over the so-called Atomic Age mutated into pessimism and paranoia following the United States' bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, among other events. In the Parables we see evidence of ongoing nuclear suspicion in an act of vandalism on one of the stone markers: the word "no" has been chipped out of the sentence "There is no danger to visitors."
Essay Section 8
From the burial site of CP-1, Stratman moved to another military-industrial graveyard. In chapter VIII we see a series of small hills popping out of the otherwise characteristically flat Midwestern landscape in a manner reminiscent of the Cahokia Mounds. These mounds are, in fact, ruins from the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, a military facility that produced explosives during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In 1996, the area became the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the country's largest prairie reserve, named after the Potawatomi word for "healer." From the end of the last ice age roughly 13,800 years ago, prairies covered 60% of Illinois and supported a biodiverse ecosystem. The arrival of colonial-settlers some four hundred years ago marked the beginning of the rapid transformation of the land, which was thoroughly reorganized under the logic of capitalism to become a patchwork of mostly privately owned lands used for agricultural, industrial, and residential purposes. Because of this, Illinois has lost 99.999% of its prairieland. Midewin is an essential project as a refuge for numerous rare and endangered nonhuman animal and plant species, such as Upland sandpipers, Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchids, and Blanding's turtles. 
Essay part 9
While things beyond what we might consider "natural" are explored throughout Stratman's film, chapter IX takes a distinctively supernatural turn. In the summer of 1946, a series of mysterious fires broke out on a farm in Macomb, Illinois. The blazes started out small: little brown spots on the farmhouse walls that smoldered for several minutes before bursting into flames. In the following weeks, hundreds of small fires inexplicably broke out around the property—one of which burnt out of control, destroying the farmhouse before fire trucks arrived. By this point, the mystery fires were big news; even the United States Air Force was brought in to investigate, but they left just as baffled as everyone else. One theory claimed concentrated radioactivity caused the fires—more evidence of America's Atomic Age paranoia.
Another popular theory centered on a thirteen-year-old girl named Wanet MacNeill who lived on the farm, Stratman dramatizes this theory in the film. It was suggested that MacNeill was pyrokinetic, causing the fires solely with the power of her mind. The actual cause turned out to be far more banal. MacNeill eventually confessed under pressure to starting the fires with kitchen matches while no one was looking, stating dissatisfaction with her life on the farm as reason for the arson. The explanation satisfied authorities and reporters; however, to this day paranormal investigators remain unconvinced. In the Parables Stratman seemed to side with the skeptics.
Stratman's inclusion of MacNeill's story in the Parables speaks to the multitude of smaller, personal-scale stories that cumulatively shape landscapes everywhere.
Essay Part Ten
As illustrated by the film's chapters on the Cherokee and Mormons, a group's occupancy of the land is especially precarious when their ideology or way of life differs greatly from those in power. We see this again in the case of the police raid of the Chicago Black Panther Headquarters in 1969. The event was a culminating moment in a decade of tension between insurgent political movements and the United States government.
In the early morning of December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police Department entered the Panther headquarters at 2337 W. Monroe Street, killing two people and wounding several others. In the Parables a voiceover describes the CPD's version of events: they engaged in a "gun battle," initiated by the Panthers, while executing a search warrant on the property. However, out of nearly one hundred bullets fired that morning, only one was ultimately determined to have come from the Panthers. Over the course of the ensuing thirteen-year legal battle, it was revealed that the police worked with the FBI to orchestrate the raid, specifically with an agent provocateur and informant named William O'Neal who had infiltrated the Panthers.
FBI memos included as intertitles in the Parables reveal the Bureau considered the Panthers to be a "black nationalist hate group," which the FBI sought to neutralize by launching the operation known internally as COINTELPRO. Of particular concern to the agency was the rise of a "messiah" that would catalyze people around the growing political movement. The December 4 raid was designed to neutralize one such messianic figure: Fred Hampton, the young charismatic Chairman of the Chicago Panthers who was killed in his sleep during the raid. Hampton, who was 21 years old at the time of his death, was a rising leader and revolutionary socialist who helped form the Rainbow Coalition, a multicultural organization that brought together Black, Latino, and white working-class people across Chicago to fight police brutality, gentrification, and institutionalized racism. His assassination is a potent reminder of the lengths those in power will go to suppress philosophies contrary to their own. In closing the chapter, we see a mural of Hampton at 2746 W. Madison Street, a physical marker in the urban landscape of his lasting influence and the ongoing legacy of Black radical politics.
Following ten earthbound chapters, in chapter XI Stratman traveled skyward via hot air balloon to view Michael Heizer's (American, b. 1944) monumental earthwork Effigy Tumuli (1983–85) from above. The work was completed in 1985 on a former coal strip mining site in what is now Buffalo Rock State Park. Effigy Tumuli is the only known representational work by Heizer, the land art pioneer who primarily works in abstraction. It depicts several nonhuman animal and plant species endemic to the area, including a catfish, water strider, turtle, frog, and snake.
Throughout his career, Heizer researched, referenced, and appropriated forms and techniques from ancient civilizations and Indigenous cultures to create his artwork. Effigy Tumuli references the earthen mounds of Cahokia and similar sites throughout the Midwest and was produced with similar techniques. Stratman drew this connection by bracketing the Parables with the original Mississippian mounds in the first chapter and Heizer's homage in the last. Heizer's interest in earthworks is their ability to carry a record of culture through time by embedding it in the landscape. In Heizer's words. "[A]rt is a record of civilization and societies [. . .] as time goes by what interests us will interest those who will examine our historical time."  While Heizer's earthworks bridge the past and present for a contemporary audience, he also seems to be creating deep-time documents for a speculative audience of future people who might view his work the same way people today look at the ruins of ancient civilizations.
The Parables has a similar function. It teaches us, in the present, about the land that we currently occupy. But it also exists as a document for posterity: an unsanitized history of Illinois that includes both beautiful and horrific scenes from our shared past as occupants of this state and as parts of this landscape.
Figure 11a 11b
Essay part 12
Stratman described the process of winnowing down the stories included in the Parables as "somewhat tortuous." The complex history of any place simply cannot be told by a finite number of stories—especially in a one-hour film. Recognizing this, Stratman created a sculptural installation and audio program titled Feeling Tone (2020) to expand upon the stories included in the film. The replica of Studs Terkel's radio booth is complete with furniture, recording equipment, and ephemera, some of which came directly from WFMT's archives. The exterior of the structure is left raw: Stratman left wood studs, drywall, and electrical wiring exposed as if the booth was ripped from the WFMT headquarters and transported to the gallery intact.
Louis "Studs" Terkel was a renowned broadcaster, oral historian, activist, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author who made a name for himself with his books such as Division Street: America and on his radio show which ran on WFMT for forty-five years. Terkel conducted interviews with a diverse array of luminaries such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Cesar Chavez, to name just a few, but also with people he referred to as "the etceteras": the everyday working people of Chicago, Illinois, and beyond. It was in an interview with one such etcetera, a hospital worker named Nancy Dickerson, that Terkel was introduced the idea of the "feeling tone." For Terkel, feeling tone is raw emotional experience, expressed in the sonic character of a storyteller's voice, found not in facts and figures but in hesitations and pauses.
Over the course of his career, Terkel amassed over 9,000 hours of recorded interviews. He christened his archive—the totality of his life's work—Vox Humana: The Human Voice.  For her installation, Stratman chose one interview from Terkel's Vox Humana to play each day of the exhibition. There are 143 interviews in total, a dated list can be found here. Stratman envisions her installation as a spaceship, transporting museum visitors through time and space on the sonic wavelengths of voices.
Notably, WFMT remains a local public radio station in Chicago. Politically Terkel had socialist leanings and advocated for numerous social causes throughout his life, including civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and environmentalism. The invention of telecommunications allowed for the capitalist reorganization of nature to extend beyond the landscape and into the airspace, where radio frequencies have been regulated by governmental bodies and sold off to the highest bidders. However, within this privatized airspace, public radio remains a space of free thought and expression, uninhibited by corporate interests—a public park in the sky. As with all media, it's important to consider the motives behind the dissemination of information: in Stratman's words, "We need to care about how the world gets delivered to us."
History can feel objective, distant, and impersonal. People are often presented as abstractions or statistics through the distant voice of historians. With The Illinois Parables and its sculptural extension Feeling Tone, Stratman offered a different kind of history. She showed us how the landscape is an earthen record of history, containing the marks and scars left by its shifting inhabitants, ranging from mounds, roads, and buildings to ruins and radioactive waste. These physical traits, left behind by humans, are the hallmarks of the Anthropocene, but Stratman asks us to consider this complex, human-wrought landscape as more than just geology. To truly understand the land, you can't just look. You must also listen.
Between the film and installation, Stratman layered music, archival audio, ambient sounds, and the voices of the land’s inhabitants atop the landscape, reflecting not just a physical history of Illinois but the very feeling tone of the state. Ultimately, Stratman reveals that we are not just occupants of the land—we are an expression of it.
The name has been debated widely in recent years; for an overview of proposed alternatives see Harraway, Donna Making Kin: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Cthulucene. https://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol6/6.7.pdf
The Cahokia were one of 13 sub-tribes of the Illiniwek or Illinois Confederation, which also included the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Moingwena, Michigamea, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara tribes.
Russell, John. "The Legend of the Piasa." Central States Archaeological Journal 33, no. 4 (1986): 304-07. www.jstor.org/stable/43139666.
Esarey, Duane. January 15, 2015. www.youtube.com/watch?v=gP2nR_PqIMk.
The Field Museum in Chicago is currently renovating their Native North American Hall in response to criticism from Native communities. See https://www.fieldmuseum.org/about/press/field-museum-renovate-native-north-america-hall-open-2021
For an extended examination of Native North American museum displays, see Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill, North Carolinal: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Indigenous artists Wendy Redstar, James Luna, Chris Pappan have been instrumental in critical discourse around Native North American displays in museums.
Williams, Robert A. Savage Anxieties: the Invention of Western Civilization. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Greenberg, Joel. A Natural History of the Chicago Region. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Taylor, Flint. The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2019.
Heizer, Michael, Julia Brown, and Barbara Heizer. Sculpture in Reverse. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.
Terkel, Studs. Division Street: America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967