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600 Sacred Sites

Is Ohio a sacred state? There’s a strong case to be made for it. Within Ohio’s borders, archaeologists count at least 600 sacred places in the form of conical and flattop mounds, earthworks, effigy mounds and ritually enclosed spaces.

It is a rich legacy. But thanks to neglect, conflicting claims and the ravages of history, Ohio’s sacred status is at risk. That’s an appalling prospect.

Just consider the unique nature of the sites in what is now the Buckeye State. The mound building, ranging from about 3000 B.C. to the 16th century, represents three distinct cultural patterns: the Adena, Hopewell and Mississippi. Adena is the Anishinabe word for village. The Hopewell period is named after Captain M.C. Hopewell, a retired Union soldier who allowed grave robbers and curiosity seekers to scavenge the mounds on his farm. (The etymology of Mississippi should be fairly obvious.)

More intriguing than the names of the cultures, though, is the physical configuration of the structures themselves. The Newark Earthworks, for example, are noted for their interconnected octagonal, great circle and square earthwork enclosures. The sides of the octagon point to patterns not only of the summer and winter solstices but also to an 18.6-year full cycle of the moon moving back and forth across the horizon.

Between the earthworks at Newark and an older pattern of similar earthworks near present-day Chillicothe, there was a connecting pathway with earthen sides that covered nearly 60 miles. The pathway follows the Milky Way and may have been related to ceremonies for departed ancestors whose spirits traveled the path of our home galaxy to the spirit world above.

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The archeological evidence is very difficult to tie to one or more particular Indian nations. It doesn’t help that during the 1500s, the area seems to have been deserted. Perhaps diseases brought by traders and relations who had contact with Europeans were responsible. After all, in similar areas, like what is now the American southeast, disease and slave raiding caused many deaths. But even while in these cases the percentage of mortality was catastrophic—often around 90 percent—there remained groups of survivors.

By the early 1600s a variety of now relatively small Iroquoian and Algonkian communities appeared to be living in the Ohio region. Some of these tribes were the Shawnee, Wyandot, Mingo, and various Iroquois. The Haudenasaunee absorbed many of the latter during the 1640s and ’50s.

About 150 years later, a confederacy of Delaware, Shawnee, Ojibwe, Miami, and other Indian nations fought fiercely to keep the Americans east of the Ohio Valley. Most likely the Indian Confederacy was well aware of the 600 or more sacred sites in the Ohio region and continued to carry on ceremonies there.

But when the Americans negotiated a treaty at Greenville in 1795, they did not regard the southern half of Ohio as belonging to any particular tribe. Instead, the new nation saw the area as being owned collectively by the Confederated Indian defenders. Indeed, in Licking County, the location of the Newark Earthworks, collective ownership extended to 46 tribes, including bands of the Chippewa, Delaware, Ottawa, Miami, Piankishaw, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Wea and Wyandot.

By the 1830s and later, most Indian nations were removed to locations farther west. And as they were forced to abandon their enclosures, mounds and burial sites, many ended up on private property. Farmers destroyed quite a few with agriculture. Urban development flattened others. At Newark Earthworks, the graves are now located under an industrial park, the octagon is part of a golf course, and the Great Circle—probably a place for preparing the dead for their spiritual journey—was a venue for horse racing, car racing and the County Fair.

Is it possible to reclaim Ohio’s sacred places? And what rights do present-day tribal communities have in that regard? One thing is for sure: Indian peoples must have greater access to the disposition of their physical heritage.