Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — It was a dark and stormy day in southeastern Ohio, quickly moving toward the longest night, the winter solstice.

The driving rain coupled with 38-degree temperatures allowed the cold wet to penetrate to the skin, past layers of sweaters, coats and hats.

It was a day to stay inside where it’s warm and dry.

But here in Chillicothe, next to a busy highway and home to grim lines of strip malls and convenience stores, an ancient observance, as old as the land itself, was taking place.

Guy Jones of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe appeared in the distance. Jones, Lance Soto of the Cocopah Indian Tribe, Shelly Corbin and her 6-year-old daughter Maelyn of the Cheyenne River Tribe made their way across a large field toward the Hopeton Earthworks. They carried a portable metal fire pit, a large bag of wood chips and an umbrella. Maelyn held tightly to the umbrella that was quickly turned inside out by the wind.

left to right Maelyn Corbin, 6, Shelly Corbin, Lance Soto and Guy Jones make their way to the Hopeton Earthworks. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

They’d come to observe and honor the annual alignment of the winter solstice’s setting sun with the walls of the Hopeton Earthworks built more than 2,000 years ago by people of the Hopewell culture.

This year’s solstice coincided with another remarkable celestial event. On this night, for the first time since the year 1226, Jupiter and Saturn, our solar system’s largest planets aligned. The Great Conjunction, sometimes called the Christmas Star, would also be visible in the night sky.

Constructed on a grand scale, the Hopeton Earthworks originally featured 12-foot high walls made of red and yellow soil hauled to the site by Indigenous peoples whose name has disappeared along with most of their history.

Hopeton Earthworks (courtesy of the National Park Service)

The Hopeton Earthworks complex includes a 20-acre circle, a 20-acre square and at least two small circles and parallel walls, according to the National Park Service, which oversees the park.

Remarkably, this region of southern Ohio has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples for more than 15,000 years. As European settlers arrived in the area about 350 years ago, however, the great Hopewell and subsequent Mississippian cultures declined until the 1830s when their descendants the Shawnee and Myaamia tribes were removed from Ohio to Oklahoma.

Archaeologists estimate that before Europeans arrived, there were more than 10,000 earthworks and mounds in the central Ohio valley. Today, only about 1,000 survive, 73 are open to the general public.

Map of Hopewell Culture earthworks in Ohio. Does not include mounds and earthworks created by other cultures. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Unfortunately, like most of the mounds and earthworks in this region, the walls of the Hopeton Earthworks have been eroded by plowing and development. A planting of native grasses now outlines the great circles and lines. People are not allowed to walk among the earthworks but can instead view them from a hill on which the park service has placed a circle of large stone slabs of glacial erratic boulders.

SUPPORT INDIGENOUS JOURNALISM. CONTRIBUTE TODAY.

It was here that the group met to witness the beginning of the darkest night and offer up prayers.

“These times, especially with the pandemic and social upheaval, make it extremely important for us to reconnect with sacred sites not just for ourselves but for our children and their children,” Corbin said.

The pandemic has given Corbin the sense that human beings are moving too fast.

Shelly Corbin and her daughter Maelyn, 6 warm themselves by the fire as they await sunset at Hopeton Earthworks on the Winter Solstice. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

“This has been a time for us to slow down and reconnect with each other and the earth. We’ve been given the chance to realize that there are more important things than what is dictated by our society. By reconnecting with the land, feeding it and praying for it, we can receive its teachings again,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the majority of people don’t value or understand these ways.”

Not far away, rush hour traffic whizzed by in an unbroken stream as Jones and Soto struggled to light a fire in the driving wind and rain.

The Hopeton Earthworks is located in Chillicothe, Ohio. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

As the fire took hold, the wind died down and the rain subsided to a mild drizzle. The little group offered prayers and medicine to the fire as they gazed toward the west.

The sun suddenly broke through the dark clouds just as the moment of its setting approached.

“It was like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. The sky opened followed by a burst of light and the area took on a sudden orange glow,” Jones said. “It was as though Tunkasila was acknowledging us.”

The sun dipped below the horizon and just before the clouds once again obscured the sky, the Great Conjunction made itself visible for the briefest of moments.

For a time, the little group was speechless.

“We’re standing on the grounds of our ancestors,” Jones said. “There they were, the sun and stars aligned in the corridor left for us by those who prepared these grounds so long ago.” 

ICT smartphone logo

Mary Annette Pember, citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is national correspondent for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @mapember. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Pember loves film, books and jingle dress dancing.

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.