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Sacred site for sale

2,000-year-old hallowed ground to be auctioned off June 14

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio - Time is running out for one of ancient Native America's most untouched and unusual sacred places. On June 14, Spruce Hill Works, a vast 2,000-year-old hilltop earthworks enclosure, goes on the auction block.

A local coalition - including the Ross County Park District and two nonprofits, Arc of Appalachia Preserve System and Wilderness East - is trying to raise the $600,000 needed to save the 238-acre property. The tract is home to not just a 150-acre sacred site, but also rare native birds and fish and some of the region's densest wildflower displays.

At press time, the coalition had come up with $175,000, the bulk of it from preservation-minded individuals, with additional sums from the Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit, and the Ohio Archaeological Council, a professional organization. ''We need a miracle,'' said Nancy Stranahan, co-director of the 2,500-acre Arc of Appalachia Preserve System. ''We're praying but also working very hard.''

''If these groups don't succeed, Spruce Hill Works will likely be purchased by a timber company or a developer,'' said Marti Chaatsmith, Comanche/Choctaw and program coordinator of the Newark Earthworks Center, an Ohio State University program that promotes the study and protection of mounds, in particular a major complex in Newark. ''Many earthworks have been plowed under or built on, so this one's near-pristine condition is important, especially to Native people. It's very hard to find ancient sacred places that haven't been tampered with or destroyed.''

In 1992, Congress directed the National Park Service to explore adding Spruce Hill Works to Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, in Chillicothe. The park encompasses seven earthworks that have been nominated to become World Heritage Sites. Spruce Hill Works may also be suitable for such a designation.

All of these artificial hills and earthen-walled enclosures were constructed by indigenous people who arrived in the area in about 2,000 years ago and embarked upon a 500-year building campaign that left what appears to be a coordinated system of thousands of earthworks stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Some are massive, with several related installations, each of which encompasses scores of acres. The remains of ceremonial passageways, outlying shrines and habitations cover even more acreage, said archaeologists.

Virtuosic architects, engineers, geometers and astronomers, the ancient mound builders are often called the Hopewell, after the owner of a farm on which artifacts were found during the 19th century. What they called themselves is not known. However, it is understood that they were a collection of culturally related hunting, gathering and agricultural communities rather than a cohesive, centrally administered tribe, as the term is understood today, according to Jay Miller, Delaware and coordinator of OSU's American Indian Studies program.

The ancients took advantage of the peace and prosperity of their times to produce not just earthworks, but exquisitely crafted objects, such as bird and hand silhouettes cut from translucent sheets of mica, dresses embroidered with thousands of freshwater pearls, jewelry, statuary, ritual items and musical instruments, including diminutive copper trumpets.

As is the case with Spruce Hill Works, surviving mounds are at risk. Development continues apace in Ohio, and if a sacred site does not lie on federal land, national preservation laws do not apply. Ohio's state preservation laws do not offer meaningful protection, according to Chaatsmith.

Public access to earthworks on private land is also problematic in Ohio. As a result, Native and non-Native people have drawn together in recent years to respond to both preservation and access challenges.

''The elderly couple whose property included Spruce Hill Works was cooperating patiently with the cumbersome process of evaluating them and funding the purchase at the national level,'' Stranahan said. ''However, they recently passed on at an advanced age, and the court ordered the auction. No government agency can move fast enough to buy the site. That's why we stepped in.'' In the best-case scenario, she said, the coalition of local groups will purchase Spruce Hill Works and donate them to the NPS.

''I applaud their efforts and would like to see more cooperation of this kind,'' Chaatsmith said. ''It's a shame, though, that this has to happen so quickly and under such duress. Going forward, we need to strengthen Ohio's preservation laws, as we may become aware of additional vulnerable sacred places.''

Stranahan has been reaching out to mainstream and indigenous people for information, as well as donations. On May 15, she participated in the radio show ''Native America Calling.''

The presence of an indigenous site on the property has made her cautious, she said. She and Arc of Appalachia co-director Larry Henry have great experience as naturalists, she explained, but none in dealing with indigenous sacred places. ''We recognize that our interest is just a start. We have no expertise or bloodlines to rely on and need Native partners to do this right.''

Though Ohio has no federally recognized tribes that can step in, there are communities whose homelands once encompassed the state. Some were forcibly removed during the 19th century; others migrated elsewhere before then.

''We need help from tribes that once lived here,'' Chaatsmith said. ''There's a long list of potentially interested ones with resources and knowledgeable tribal preservation officers.''

For more information on Spruce Hill Works, visit highlandssanctuary.org.