‘To Preserve the Future of Our Past’: Tribes Work for World Heritage Designation of Ohio Earthworks

Stephanie Woodard December 2, 2019

The monumental earthworks in Ohio are not easily perceived from the ground. They were laid out with a “god’s eye view” in mind, says a research team.

In Octo­ber, Chief Bil­ly Friend of the Wyan­dotte Nation addressed a crowd in Dublin, Ohio. It was a cel­e­bra­tion of the city’s new Fer­ris-Wright Park, which fea­tures exam­ples of the ancient geo­met­ric earth­works and mounds, or arti­fi­cial hills, that dot the state.

A new­ly appoint­ed mem­ber of the board of trustees of the state’s his­to­ry agency, Ohio His­to­ry Con­nec­tion, Chief Friend greet­ed the throng and intro­duced him­self in the Wyan­dot lan­guage. He then shift­ed to Eng­lish, explain­ing that trib­al elders chose his name.

It means he who talks a long time,’” he quipped. Respond­ing to ner­vous laugh­ter, he assured lis­ten­ers that his remarks would be brief.

Ances­tors of today’s Native peo­ple built the earth­en sites between about 100 BC and 400 AD, pri­mar­i­ly along trib­u­taries of the Ohio Riv­er. Sev­er­al of the most mon­u­men­tal and mag­nif­i­cent instal­la­tions — includ­ing the Newark Earth­works, which cov­er four and a half square miles in Newark, Ohio — were select­ed for poten­tial des­ig­na­tion as World Her­itage Sites. In 2013, Chief Friend and Chief Glen­na Wal­lace of the East­ern Shawnee Tribe of Okla­homa joined UNESCO offi­cials to tour var­i­ous earth­works as part of the eval­u­a­tion process.

Wyan­dotte Nation Chief Bil­ly Friend, sec­ond from left, receives the city flag of Dublin, Ohio. (Pho­to by Joseph Zummo)

Though lit­tle known by the gen­er­al pub­lic, schol­ars con­sid­er the earth­works to be won­ders of the ancient world. So writes retired Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Lind­say Jones in his intro­duc­tion to a book edit­ed with emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor Richard D. Shiels, The Newark Earth­works: Endur­ing Mon­u­ments, Con­test­ed Mean­ings. Despite cen­turies of plow­ing and devel­op­ment, sev­er­al of the approx­i­mate­ly 600 com­plex­es and the many free­stand­ing mounds, built about 2,000 years ago, can still be iden­ti­fied. In the com­ing months, UNESCO is expect­ed to announce whether the Ohio sites will join some 1,000 cul­tur­al and nat­ur­al places world­wide — among them, the Great Wall of Chi­na, Stone­henge and the Parthenon — that it has found have out­stand­ing uni­ver­sal val­ue.”

The Newark Earth­works are mas­sive, while Fer­ris-Wright Park fea­tures one of the region’s small­er sites, with earth­en struc­tures cov­er­ing a frac­tion of a square mile. Vis­i­tors to the park’s Octo­ber fes­ti­val viewed the earth­works, saw ancient flint arrow­heads and oth­er his­tor­i­cal items, tried their hand at throw­ing her­itage-styled spears, and watched Dublin offi­cials bestow a city flag on Chief Friend.

Chief Friend called his Ohio trips learn­ing expe­ri­ences. Now head­quar­tered in Wyan­dotte, Okla­homa, his tribe was one of Ohio’s orig­i­nal peo­ple. In the 19th-cen­tu­ry, the tribe was forced out of Ohio on an ardu­ous jour­ney that took them to Kansas then Okla­homa. Oth­er tribes expelled from Ohio includ­ed the Shawnee and the Miamis. The Wyan­dot were the last to leave the state, accord­ing to Chief Friend.

In an inter­view, Chief Friend said that over the last 15 years, Ohio has warm­ly wel­comed back its indige­nous peo­ple and ensured that Native sacred sites and oth­er places are respect­ed and cared for. In addi­tion to appoint­ing Chief Friend to its board, the Ohio His­to­ry Con­nec­tion has cre­at­ed an Amer­i­can Indi­an Rela­tions divi­sion, with a direc­tor and edu­ca­tion­al and research resources. At Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, Amer­i­can Indi­ans run its Newark Earth­works Cen­ter, a research and study insti­tute; the direc­tor is John Low, of the Pok­agon Band of Potawato­mi Indi­ans, and the asso­ciate direc­tor is Mar­ti Chaat­smith, who is Comanche and Choctaw. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincin­nati offers an engag­ing web­site for earth­works vis­i­tors, ancien​to​hio​trail​.org.

[Ohio] is where my ances­tors stood, par­took of cer­e­monies, and fought,” Friend told me. He stressed the impor­tance of reaf­firm­ing his­to­ry. Our trib­al mis­sion is to pre­serve the future of our past.”

With that in mind, he takes Wyan­dot high-school and col­lege stu­dents on bus tours of their her­itage Mid­west home­lands. In Sep­tem­ber 2019, he and fel­low trib­al mem­bers attend­ed a cer­e­mo­ny in San­dusky, Ohio. At the event, the Methodist Church returned land the tribe gave it as it left the state in 1843. The Wyan­dot did this so the church could pro­tect buri­als on the now-repa­tri­at­ed tract. Look­ing back, Friend told the Wash­ing­ton Post, it was the best thing” the tribe did in those dif­fi­cult times.

This pho­to shows the Hopewell Cul­ture Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Park, a Nation­al His­toric Site, in Chill­i­cothe, Ohio. (Pho­to by Joseph Zummo)

The earth­works’ builders were skilled archi­tects, geome­ters, and astronomers. They cre­at­ed mas­ter­pieces of sub­tle­ty, with earth­en-walled squares, cir­cles, octagons and oth­er forms ris­ing gen­tly from their sur­round­ings. Even with walls that may be 14 feet high, the places are dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend ful­ly from the ground. Pre­cise­ly aligned walls and per­fect­ly posi­tioned open­ings mark impor­tant points in the solar and lunar cycles. These include sol­stices, equinox­es, and the north­ern lunar stand­still. The last is the north­ern­most point of the moon’s oscil­lat­ing ris­ing points, occur­ring every 18.6 years.

Though the ancients lived in small, decen­tral­ized ham­lets, they man­aged to build many large, com­pli­cat­ed, and remark­ably con­sis­tent places through­out Ohio. They accom­plished this with­out the rulers or cen­tral­ly direct­ed con­struc­tion meth­ods that, for exam­ple, the Egyp­tians used to build the pyramids.

Archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence shows these earth­works were made in a peace­ful way, not in an author­i­tar­i­an, hier­ar­chi­cal way,” said Chaat­smith, of the Newark Earth­works Cen­ter, on a tour of the Newark Earth­works in Sep­tem­ber 2019.

They were also expert crafts­peo­ple with an extrav­a­gant mate­r­i­al cul­ture. Among the many items they fab­ri­cat­ed were stone stat­u­ary and pipes, cop­per trum­pets, pot­tery, and ghost­ly open hands made from sheets of translu­cent mica. They cre­at­ed jew­el­ry with fresh­wa­ter pearls and adorned buri­als with thou­sands of them, accord­ing to Chaatsmith.

We do not know what the ancients called them­selves. Archae­ol­o­gists dubbed them Hopewell,” after the own­er of the farm on which a site was iden­ti­fied. Aca­d­e­m­ic researchers con­tin­ue to try to deter­mine the earth­works’ exact func­tion, or func­tions. Were they pil­grim­age sites, astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­to­ries, cer­e­mo­ni­al grounds, trad­ing posts, ceme­ter­ies, or some com­bi­na­tion of those … or some­thing else?

Chief Friend point­ed out that the Wyan­dot lan­guage, like that of oth­er indige­nous peo­ple, is built on verbs, not nouns. The earth­works, built by the dis­tant ances­tors of numer­ous mod­ern-day tribes, may not have been designed for a sta­t­ic pur­pose that could be named by a noun, or adjec­tive-noun pair, he said. The places may have been intend­ed to present the activ­i­ties of life more broad­ly, he said.

He gave a con­tem­po­rary exam­ple of what he felt was like­ly the ancient earth­works builders’ sense of flu­id­i­ty. When speak­ing Wyan­dot today, Chief Friend explained, Even an ani­mal or a type of kin­ship isn’t a rigid thing des­ig­nat­ed by a noun. Like these earth­works sites, they have life.”

Time may have also fig­ured in the orig­i­nal mean­ing of the earth­works, Friend sug­gest­ed. Instal­la­tions that mark the moon’s gen­er­a­tion-long cycle, such as the one in Newark, may have host­ed large gath­er­ings to cel­e­brate that time span. More diminu­tive sites, like the one in Dublin, may have pre­sent­ed small­er-scale, more fre­quent occa­sions, he said.

Some prac­tices of the earth­works builders appear to have sur­vived in var­ied ways. Shawnee Tribe Sec­ond Chief Ben Barnes and archae­ol­o­gist Brad Lep­per have explored a con­nec­tion between ancient Hopewell and con­tem­po­rary Shawnee drum mak­ing. The Newark Earth­works Cen­ter has teamed with the Native Amer­i­can Cen­ter of Cen­tral Ohio, in Colum­bus, to put on a mul­ti-trib­al pow­wow and has spon­sored a Newark Earth­works Day — a gath­er­ing that may resem­ble the site’s orig­i­nal fes­tiv­i­ties, with a pro­ces­sion­al, drum­ming and danc­ing, speech­es, exhibits, and a feast.

Nowa­days, the earth­works may tend to seem large, emp­ty, and somber, but accord­ing to Chaat­smith they were once places of joy and light.”

Pil­lars on the bridge to Fer­ris-Wright Park, in Dublin, Ohio, dis­play ancient icono­gra­phies. (Pho­to by Joseph Zummo)

As vis­i­tors walked across the bridge into Fer­ris-Wright Park, they passed the Hopewell iconog­ra­phy that Chaat­smith sug­gest­ed, and the Dublin parks depart­ment chose, to adorn the posts on either side of the span.

I feel that I am home,” said Chief Friend.

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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