Yesterday was Indigenous People’s Day in the United States. Indigenous People’s Day started in Berkeley, California, in 1992, 500 years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. It is a counter-celebration of Columbus Day, the US Federal holiday also on October 12, which serves only to sanitize the violent history of colonization across North and South America.
The land of Ohio has a powerful relationship to the Indigenous People who lived in this area for many thousands of years before the European people arrived. The word “Ohio” is itself derived from a word in the Iroquois language for “good river.” That is fitting as Ohio is home to several networks of rivers and tributaries. Also, Tecumseh, the leader of the Native American Confederacy, was born in Ohio. Tecumseh fought to the death to unite the Indigenous People of what is now Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, to secure a hunting ground and a territory, protected against European colonization.
The British were allies with the Native American Confederacy, and during the Treaty of Ghent, the British implored the US Government to return that land to the Indigenous People. However, Ohio was granted statehood in 1803, and then after Tecumseh died in battle in 1813, Indiana followed in 1816, and Michigan in 1837. What remains of the long-standing Councils and the multitude of tribal communities that inhabited the land are relics in museums and several sacred burial grounds.
Recently, I explored three such burial grounds, called “mounds” or “earthworks.” The earthworks are places of ceremony, social gathering, worship, and burial. Although Ohio has many numerous earthwork sites, those I visited are all located in the southern end of the state, between Cincinnati and Athens.
The Mound City Group is one of six Hopewell National Historical Sites. This 13-acre space is enclosed with a 4-foot earth wall, and is home to 23 mounds. The largest mound is 17 and a half feet high, and 90 feet in diameter.
The mounds are what remains from the Hopewell culture, who is thought to have lived in the area from 1-400 AD. Historians and archaeologists speculate that each mound used to house a ceremonial building, based on clues such as artifacts, clays, and ashes. After the building was purposefully dismantled, the mound was constructed.
History almost lost this site. After land pressures in the mid-late 19th century, it was plowed over for farming. Fortunately, two historians had mapped the original site, and it was successfully reconstructed in the 1920s.
Seip Earthworks is another one of the six Hopewell National Historical Sites. It is 120 acres of two circles and a 27-square acre astronomical alignment. Sadly, many of the geometric earthworks were destroyed during colonial expansion. Tim Anderson Jr’s drone footage from 2016 is a birds-eye view of what has been preserved, and is now part of the National Park Service.
My visit was fairly short, but I did take a peaceful moment to prepare morning coffee over my propane backpacking stove and to bask in the fresh autumn sunlight.
I almost bypassed this site, in favor of continuing on to my final evening of camping, but it ended up being my favorite, and most adventurous, afternoon. This site apparently has two earthworks, one at the top of Fort Hill with 33 gateways and 1.5 mile circumference; and a second, more difficult to locate, Circle Earthwork. I opted to trek along the Buckeye Trail to find the less accessible mound.
After perhaps two miles along a steep and uneven path, I was on a narrow trail overgrown with spider webs and vegetation. I waved a stick in front of me with each step to avoid spiders in my hair. Eventually, the trail abruptly ended in a field. A farmer was baling hay in the late afternoon heat, and I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. I stumbled a bit over the uneven soil, and then finally noticed a slightly elevated area of earth to my right. I had found it, the Circle Earthwork. I felt satisfied and accomplished.
We can’t change the course that history followed, but we can choose which version of history we honor: the brutish violence of colonization, or the powerful energy of a movement toward reclamation that is very much alive. We can choose our heroes, and how we name the victors.