Conspiracy theories threaten Native sacred sites

The Great Serpent Mound near Peebles, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of the Ohio History Connection)

Mary Annette Pember

Native people push back against disrespectful appropriation of the Serpent Mound. This story has been corrected

Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Is it a home to a mine for spaceship fuel? Could it be a portal to another dimension ready to be activated? Is it a place of hidden paranormal powers? Was it a safe spot to be when the 2012 Mayan prophecy predicted the end of the world or was it the place to be during the Harmonic Convergence in 1987? Was it built by a race of evil giants? Does its evil power need to be exorcised by Christians?

In its stranger-than-fiction modern history, the Serpent Mound is routinely appropriated to support these outlandish claims and more.

Built by ancient Indigenous peoples, the Serpent Mound, the world’s largest effigy mound, is considered a sacred site by tribes such as the Shawnee, Eastern Shawnee, Miami and Delaware who once called Ohio their homes.

This fact, affirmed by mainstream archaeology and the Ohio History Connection, the organization that owns the site, gets lost in the swirl of conspiracy theory enthusiasts who use the mound to support their beliefs.

On Dec. 20, a group of extremist evangelical Christians organized by Dave Daubenmire, leader of the Pass the Salt Ministries, planned to hold a prayer ceremony intended to cast out demons from the Serpent Mound and place anointed stones in or near the site.

Daubenmire claims the Serpent Mound and other earthworks in the region were built by Nephilim, giant fallen angels who are mentioned in the Bible’s book of Genesis.

Native American ancestors could not have created these works since they had no knowledge of high math, according to Daubenmire.

Therefore, the sites are direct conduits to the devil and should be exposed and disarmed.

The timing of Daubenmire’s prayer action, the day before the winter solstice, was important.

“This is a high holiday for the demonic world,” he said in his Facebook broadcast.

The head of the Serpent Mound is directly aligned with the sun during the summer solstice; its coils are also aligned with the summer and winter solstice and equinox sunrises.

Clearly the mound is associated with celestial events so it is often open during these times so people can visit, according to park managers at the Arc of Appalachia.

A group of Native people, including members of the Miami Valley Council for Native Americans, local Native citizens as well as members of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, traveled to the park in order to witness the event. Phil Yenyo, director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio confronted members of the Pass the Salt Ministries as they prepared to “pray down the Satanic Serpent Mounds,” as described in one of many videos posted on various social media sites by Daubenmire.

Philip Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, tries to prevent members of the Pass the Salt Ministries from entering the grounds of the Serpent Mound. (Screen shot of YouTube video by Mary Annette Pember)
Philip Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, tries to prevent members of the Pass the Salt Ministries from entering the grounds of the Serpent Mound. (Screen shot of YouTube video by Mary Annette Pember)

Yenyo spoke to the group in the park’s parking lot.

According to Yenyo, he told the group, “You need to find somewhere else to do this. You’re not going to do your ceremony on this sacred site; our ancestors are buried all around here.

“I told them, hey, we don’t violate your sacred sites or cemeteries. I let them know they need to show some respect in this place,” he said.

“We heard about their plans on the night before their event. They were going to place stones in the head and coils of the serpent in order to break some sort of evil connection they believe exists between the mound and the demon world,” Yenyo said.

“So we went down there to try and stop them.”

Their plan didn’t work out too well though, according to Yenyo. “One of the men began pushing me with his chest as we tried to talk with them; we were really outnumbered.”

Pushing past Yenyo, the ministry members announced that “This land will be taken in the name of Jesus.”

About 20 members of the ministry walked along the pathway surrounding the serpent, praying loudly, asking for God to cast out demons. Several people who climbed on the mound stepped down after being warned to remain on the paved pathway by park authorities. One man blew a shofar’s horn, an instrument made from a ram’s horn and traditionally used for Jewish religious purposes. Another man appeared to place a cloth square filled with rocks on the ground.

A woman from the group spoke to the camera in a video of the event published on YouTube as she points to a sign along a path surrounding the serpent reading “Do not step on these sacred mounds.”

“Here’s what I say,” she says as she spits on the mound.

The unidentified woman wore a shirt reading, “Truth sounds like hate.”

Eventually, park officials called the local sheriff to escort ministry members away from the site and closed the park to all visitors.

Various legacy media sites picked up the story, emphasizing the confrontation between Yenyo and a member of the ministry and linking to a YouTube video of the event, “Pagans try to prevent prayer.”

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Daubenmire, who goes by the name “Coach Dave,” and his group have made headlines several times before for a homophobic rant against the mayor of Chicago and denouncing the “sissification” of boys as well as harangues against the “deep state” and the “plandemic.”

Periodically, similar unusual events at the mound make the news. For instance in 2012, a story in the Columbus Dispatch carried the headline, “Vandals admit muffin-crystal-thingie assault at Serpent Mound.” According to the story, a group of people from the organization Unite the Collective posted a video showing people burying “what may be hundreds of small muffin-shaped devices called orgonites in the mounds, hoping they were lifting the vibration of the earth so we can all rise together.”

The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series featured the Serpent Mound in 2011, offering alleged evidence that the mound was once a landing area for aliens who mined the site for iridium, a rare element to fuel their spaceships.

Local owner of the House of Phacops Museum, Tom Johnson, was presented in the show as an expert on both the Serpent Mound and local Native people. In his interview, he said, “The Shawnee are convinced that space travelers are using Serpent Mound as a marker.”

Glenna Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee now located in Oklahoma, told Indian Country Today in an earlier interview that this statement is not true.

Missing from such reports, however, is the lack of public education about the Indigenous history of the mound and the tribal struggle to ensure the site is treated respectfully.

For years, the Serpent Mound has been a mecca for New Agers and others who have flocked to this place about 60 miles east of Cincinnati to celebrate, hold ceremonies and conferences and even bury items in the mound.

Although the mound is a National Historic Landmark and is under consideration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage site, officials in Ohio mostly turned a blind eye to these activities in years past.

Recently, however, leaders of tribes that were forcibly removed from Ohio to Oklahoma in the 1830s after passage of the Indian Removal Act have actively reached out to Ohio officials, insisting that they put a stop to the proliferation of unusual ceremonies and activities that they say disrespect the mound. In the past two years, both the Ohio History Connection and the Arc of Appalachia, the organization that manages the day-to-day operations of the mound, have engaged in more discussion with tribal leaders.

According to Jen Aultman, director of historic sites and museums at the Ohio History Connection, the organization is building relationships with tribes that were removed from Ohio.

“We really have a strong commitment to working with our tribal partners. That includes offering the public a better understanding of the history and significance of sites like the Serpent Mound to Native Americans,” she said.

Aultman has been with the Ohio History Connection since 2016.

The History Connection recently created an American Indian policy that describes best practices such as making sure events and programs ensure accuracy, cultural sensitivity and opportunities to engage tribes, recognizing the sensitive nature and reverence for sacred sites and sharing recommendations about appropriate and inappropriate behavior at or near these sites.

Aultman admitted, however, that changing policies and exhibits comes slowly at historical sites.

Events such as the celebration of the 1987 Harmonic Convergence, which drew thousands of people to the mound, and other New Age festivals and ceremonies are no longer permitted within the park grounds. Followers of various New Age spiritual groups continue to hold events in the region but now stage them at areas away from the main Serpent Mound park site.

Aultman and leaders from both the History Connection and Arc of Appalachia were on site during the Pass the Salt Ministries visit.

“It didn’t feel like a safe situation, and it didn’t feel respectful of the American Indian origins of this place. There’s no question that this is a sacred American Indian site and we want the public to appreciate it for what it is,” Aultman said.

She and other leaders made the decision to call in police to escort ministry members away from the mound and close the site.

Yenyo, however, expressed disappointment with park leaders for allowing the event to take place at all.

“I told them, this needs to stop right now; you need to do your job and stop this,” he said.

For Yenyo, who has worked to eradicate Native sports mascots such as the Indians by the Cleveland baseball team, this is a time of racial reckoning in which old narratives like those surrounding the Serpent Mounds need to be challenged and corrected.

Unfortunately, according to Aultman, there has been a vacuum in Ohio since tribes were removed in the 19th century that has allowed the proliferation of outlandish stories and narratives about the Serpent Mound and other earthworks in the region.

There are no federally recognized tribes based in the state of Ohio.

Native Americans are often depicted as denizens of a long gone past rather than contemporary citizens with strong ties to their Ohio homelands.

According to Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee, there is an element of White privilege that contributes to the non-Native narratives surrounding the Serpent Mounds and other earthworks in Ohio.

“Why is it so outlandish to think that Indigenous people could build these structures on the landscape in the shape of a snake or other animal or express the complex geometry depicted at the nearby Newark earthworks? Why do these groups have to attribute the work to aliens, fallen angels or Phoenician demons?” he said.

According to Barnes, the Shawnee and Eastern Shawnee tribes are descendants of the people who lived along the Ohio river and built the mounds.

“Our ancestors took great care to build these places. They were built because they had special, sacred significance to them. When you walk upon that ground you’re walking on the grounds of a cathedral,” Barnes said.

Contemporary Native peoples shouldn’t be required to dissect and explain why and how such sites are sacred in a way that is palatable to non-Natives.

“Why do we always have to be so accommodating and make non-Native people feel comfortable? I don’t think we should be responsible for their comfort in order to gain respect for our sites,” he said.

Barnes is encouraged, however, by the ongoing conversations with the Ohio History Connection and the Arc of Appalachia.

“I hope we can create a lasting relationship with these organizations,” he said.

Aultman agrees.

“We are working to bring tribal voices back into these spaces because those are the voices that belong there,” she said.

Sunrise at dawn over the Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in Chillicothe, Ohio.

The remarkable ancient Indigenous history of Ohio

Indigenous peoples have lived in the Ohio River valley for thousands of years. Their names and stories of their lives, what contributed to the rise and fall of their civilizations are lost to history; all that remains are the monumental mounds and elaborate earthworks they created.

The exact motivation for building these structures is unknown but according to their descendants, the Shawnee, Eastern Shawnee, Miami and Delaware tribes, some of the symbols embedded in the work reference clan identities and other teachings still alive today.

According to archeologists, Indigenous civilizations first inhabited the region about 14,000 years ago during the Paleoindian period just after the Ice Age of Pleistocene lasting about 4,000 years. This was a period of rapid climate change.

About 5,000 years ago, the climate grew similar to what we know now giving rise to the Archaic period lasting about 2,000 years. According to Brad Lepper, curator of archaeology and natural history at the Ohio History Connection, the people of the late Archaic period began a life of sedentary farming.

“With the debut of agriculture, the population became more settled and swelled rapidly. Game and wild foods were plentiful and folks found time to bury their dead with greater care and decorate their hunting tools, home goods and other tools. The late Archaic period folks traded with distant peoples for copper and sea shells; these items must have been prized for they are found in some burial sites, perhaps those of leaders or other people of importance. By contrast, the Paleoindians, with little time for ceremony are said to have cremated their dead,” Lepper writes in his book, “Ohio Archaeology.”

The early middle and late Woodland periods, 2,800 to 1,100 BP (an archaeological term meaning “before present’) followed quickly on the heels of the late Archaic period.

People during this era built huge burial mounds and gave great attention to spirituality. Remains from this period have been found buried in elaborate ritual garb, including images and animal masks. The Hopewell culture emerged during the middle Woodland period, named after Confederate veteran Mordicai Hopewell who owned a farm in Ross County Ohio with many groups of mounds and earthworks. These are the folks who built elaborate earthworks that were not used as burial mounds. Although many have been destroyed, Ohio is rich with earthworks and burial grounds today including the Mound City group in Chillicothe, the Newark Earthworks in Liking County and many more.

The late Woodland period, 1,500 to 1,100 BP witnessed the collapse of the previous two eras. Creation of large art projects and earthworks ceased and conflict arose that led to the building of stockades around villages.

At last, during the Late Prehistoric Period, 1,100 to 400 B.P, people began to grow maize and engaged in far less trade with other groups. These are the people who built the Serpent Mound effigy in Adams County and others such as the Alligator Mound in Licking County. The effigy mounds did not serve as burial sites and were created between 850 and 990 years ago, yet their purpose remains one of the great archaeological mysteries in America.

Unfortunately, the Ohio river valley’s rich Indigenous archaeological heritage is often the target of grave looters and artifact hunters. The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) provides protection for Indigenous burial and cultural sites and has criminal penalties for digging and collecting items from them. The law, however, applies only to tribal and federal lands, there is little protection for sites located on private property.

The remains and artifacts of the ancestors who lived in Ohio are viewed in terms of cash value. Generations of European settlers have made a hobby and business of digging and pillaging the past, regarding Indigenous remains as merely part of local fauna, to be consumed at will.

In 2016, the state of Ohio prosecuted its first and only NAGPRA case. 

This article was corrected to include information that the American Indian Movement of Ohio did not organize the gathering of Native people at the Serpent Mound nor does the organization represent the views of all Native people who were present. 

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Some information in this article first appeared in the print version of the 2017 Indian Country Today Media Network print magazine.

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

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