Ohio’s indigenous people struggle against anonymity

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NEWARK, Ohio – Barbara Crandell, Cherokee, and Helen Griffin, Shawnee, spoke to Indian Country Today during Newark Earthworks Day, sponsored by Ohio State University’s Newark Earthworks Center. The October event brought together Native and non-Native experts to speak on 2,000-year-old mounds and earthen-walled enclosures constructed by ancient indigenous people of the region.

Crandell and Griffin are members of the Native American Alliance of Ohio, a consortium of Eastern Woodland Indians founded in 1992 to increase public awareness of indigenous people in Ohio and to preserve mounds and other sacred sites.

Indian Country Today: What are the central issues for Ohio’s indigenous people?

Barbara Crandell: This state has no federally recognized tribes, so Native people here have no laws or power to count on. All we have is reason, which we use to point out the advantages of not destroying sacred sites and burial grounds. However, our politicians, like all politicians, go out of their way to expend energy to do nothing. We must have a commission of Native people, selected by Native people, so if a problem arises, like construction that would disturb a sacred site or burial, we can negotiate with the state.

Helen Griffin: Identity is another major problem. When my grandson went to preschool, he’d say, “My name is Little Bear.” The teacher kept asking his name and insisted – even to his mother, when she came to pick him up after school – that he say the name on his birth certificate. So we cannot be ourselves.

My husband, who is Potawatomi, and I live in the old way. He and our sons still bow-hunt, still offer tobacco for the life of the animal. So we continue in our homes and our hearts; but outside of that, we are erased. Those of us who remained when many of Ohio’s Native people were removed to the West during the 19th century hid in the caverns and caves. My ancestors got away. But then we never obtained the federal recognition that those who went west have.

ICT: Has your group had successes you’d like to mention?

Crandell: In 1997, the Department of Energy set aside green space to rebury the remains of 26 people who had been disturbed in the laying of a pipeline. One hundred people came to the reburial. We had invited every Native person we could think of. NAAO wants everyone included.

ICT: During Newark Earthworks day, astronomer Ray Hively showed that the earthworks here were built in relation to surrounding hills, valleys and rivers. Some were also connected by long passageways. And earthworks all over Ohio have similar shapes and sizes. So they’re not isolated, but rather part of an immense sacred landscape. How do you save that?

Griffin: So much has been destroyed by centuries of farming and building, you probably can’t. But it’s up to Native people here to protect what’s left.

ICT: At Newark Earthworks Day, the audience was so enthusiastic about the mounds. Are Ohioans learning to appreciate them?

Crandell: Yes, but scientists and others have to listen to Native people. The stories coming down from my family said the old prophets laid out the mounds. At the Circle and Octagon [part of a national historic landmark in Newark], the Circle was for sacred things and the Octagon was for games, meetings, campfires and having parties. Also, the mounds are much older than 2,000 years. My mother and grandmother said they were as many as 5,000 years old. But no one wants to admit that before Christ was born, we had a structured society and spirituality. That would mean Native people were credible. We knew what to do with our lives; we knew how to say our prayers. No one pays attention to these stories.

We did not have television and radio when I was growing up. But we did have elders telling stories – and we listened.