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Singing at a center of the Indian world: the SAI and Ohio Earthworks.

In 1911 the American Indian leaders who began the Society of American Indians understood that they were standing between the chaos enveloping tribal communities and the vast changes taking place within American society. For this group recent American Indian history encompassed far-reaching social change: tribes had been separated from their traditional residences to live in other areas of the country, warfare ended on the northern and southern Plains, tribal land was lost through force and treaty, the reservation system was established. In the South, American Indians were subject to segregation policies. American Indians could not vote. Most American Indian people lived in impoverished and desperate conditions. The education and life experiences of the Society's leaders informed their belief that this was a crucial time for progressive reforms. The strategy was to work within the system to build resources, authority, and power. They established the SAI to bring attention to the most urgent problems facing tribes, to organize their efforts, and to recruit allies. The pressing issues of the day included civil rights, local government, cultural preservation, land rights, and education. The leadership proclaimed the situation as dire. Dismay and outrage fueled their determination to address the events occurring in Indian communities. Each SAI leader in 1911 was a survivor of a terrible history. Each had come of age at the turn of the twentieth century.

At the first meeting of the Society of American Indians, the members found themselves in Ohio. The SAI delegation had learned of ancient earthen enclosures built by their ancestors in nearby Newark. It is said that they visited the Octagon Earthworks and sang "America." The concerns of the SAI were urgent and immediate, while the ancient earthworks were situated within a public park. The beautiful woodlands setting might have seemed surreal. Did they know that two thousand years before, Ohio was a center of the Indian world?

Brilliant American Indian cultures flourished two thousand years ago, leaving in the lands around the Ohio Valley a spectacular concentration of monumental earthen architecture (for overviews see Lepper; Pacheco; Mainfort and Sullivan). Hundreds of embankments, mounds, walled walkways, effigies, and enclosures were designed to be precise, geometric, and extraordinarily large. Earthen enclosures in the shapes of circular rings with entryways facing east, squares with rounded corners and entryways, octagons with eight entrances, long passageways bordered by smooth earthen walls, conical mounds, low walls bordering large areas, and huge flat-topped rectangular burial mounds were placed along rivers, creeks, and natural land formations, with earthworks traversing the landscape for miles. The Indigenous people of the so-called Hopewell culture constructed them using precise geometry and a single unit of measure, equivalent to 1,054 feet. This measure was used to create giant circles throughout the Ohio Valley. The builders used its multiples to mark the distance between earthworks located far apart from each other and to create smaller circles and squares. Early reports from scouts and settlers indicated finding more than 60,000 conical mounds and approximately 600 earthworks "complexes" with two or more earthen enclosures with mounds and walkways. Today in Ohio, approximately 16,000 conical mounds and earthworks still exist. About 10,000 are conical mounds, 600 are geometric earthen enclosures, and there are a few animal effigies, including the world-renowned Serpent Mound.

The Newark Earthworks are the largest geometric earthen enclosures in the world, and of the four original enormous earthen enclosures, the octagon and the giant circle still stand. Each of the four shapes on the original nineteenth-century survey map apparently served a different purpose. The complex can be described, but its meaning cannot yet be accurately interpreted. The Octagon Earthworks consists of an octagon joined to a circle by a walled walkway. The oval was a cemetery. Between the earthen circle known as the Great Circle and the cemetery stood an enormous square. The design of the complex indicates that the earthworks were connected in specific ways with walkways bordered by earthen walls. People could not walk directly between the Octagon Earthworks and the Great Circle because walkways were not built between them. Processions could occur between the giant square and all the other enclosures. The Great Circle could be reached only by traveling through the square. The oval cemetery was directly connected to the square and the Octagon Earthworks. Within each of the earthworks, entry and departure were also prescribed. For example, the only way to enter the Octagon Earthworks was through the octagon side of the enclosure, because the circle was continuous except for the spacious entryway, which measured the width of the walled walkway that connected the two geometric enclosures. The entire complex was well planned, built on perfectly level, well-drained gravelly terrain, safely out of reach of erosion and flooding.

The Great Circle opens to the east with only one entry-way leading into the twelve-hundred-foot diameter circle flanked by fourteen-foot walls. A ditch built along the inside of the circle, lined with clay and large slabs of slate, held water. This moat would have encouraged wildlife and vernal pools, signaling spring with the sounds of peepers, insects, and birds. In the center stood a raised triangular shape, today called the "eagle" mound. Except where waterways are natural boundaries, the entire complex was encircled by a low earthen wall; a section of the wall can still be seen on the northeast side of the Great Circle.

We believe the SAI'S leaders visited the Octagon Earthworks in 1911. There, the group would have observed what can be seen today: a park setting with grassy six-foot earthen embankments in the shape of an enormous circle joined by a long walled walkway to a giant regular-shaped octagon with wide entryways at the corners and barrier mounds just inside the entryways, blocking the view to the inside. The large circle has an area of twenty acres; the octagon has an area of fifty acres. On the southern side of the earthworks, just outside the Octagon, stands a smaller perfect circle with an entryway opening to the east. Perhaps some of the SAI leaders had read about the earthworks in the Smithsonian Museum's first volume, Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, published in 1848 (Squier and Davis). If so, they knew the Octagon was just one section of the entire Newark Earthworks, and that the Newark Earthworks was one of many complexes that had been surveyed and recorded before settlement, urbanization, and industry destroyed them. The exact age of the earthworks was not known then, but the Smithsonian had convincingly established that the earthworks were built by ancestors of American Indians and not by a separate race of people.

The SAI visitors likely made their way to Observatory Mound, a flat-topped mound capable of accommodating thirty people or more situated at the midpoint of the giant circle and marked by two low, parallel walls extending outside beyond the platform mound and aligned with the ceremonial walkway that connects the circle to the octagon. This was where the group likely gathered and sang together. Observatory Mound at the Octagon Earthworks was engineered to serve a special purpose, one that modern science did not understand until 1982 when Ray Hively, an astronomer, and Robert Horn, a philosopher, published their remarkable findings as the essay "Geometry and Astronomy in Prehistoric Ohio." The authors had surveyed the Octagon Earthworks to demonstrate that, similar to Stonehenge in England, solstice solar alignments could be easily found at any site. However, their research confirmed no solar alignments. To their astonishment, they found that the Octagon Earthworks were built to serve as a lunar observatory designed to mark the singular event known as the "major lunar standstill." In their attempt to debunk the idea that ancient sites were deliberately associated with astronomical alignments, Hively and Horn had recovered Indigenous scientific knowledge dating back at least two thousand years.

Major lunar standstills occur at the peak of the long lunar cycle (see Young for a user-friendly explanation). A lunar cycle consists of a total of eight lunar moonrises and moonsets and takes 18 years and 219 days to complete. The peak of the cycle is accompanied by a year leading up to the peak year of the standstill and a year following it. During each month of the major lunar standstill years, the moon's rising transits farther along the eastern horizon than the sun. This means that for two weeks the moon travels north along the eastern horizon, and then it reverses direction and travels south along the eastern horizon for two weeks, each time going farther than the sun's transits. An explanation of the lunar cycle is complicated because it is the result of astronomical relationships among the sun, the earth, and the moon in addition to several factors that affect movements of the moon, including the angle of the moon's tilt in its orbit around the earth, the twenty-nine and a half days it takes for the moon to revolve around the earth, during which the appearance of the moon changes in what we know as "moon phases," and the twelve to thirteen cycles of lunar phases the moon completes in the course of a year.

As complex as the moon's cycle is, lunar standstills have been observed for thousands of years by many cultures at sites around the world using different kinds of materials and methods. More to the point, the Indigenous people of the Eastern Woodlands built the Octagon Earthwork's walls and entryways to track all eight of the alignments during the entire lunar cycle. The architects intended six-foot earthen embankments to create a smooth artificial horizon for viewing the moonrises and moonsets from within the Octagon Earthworks. On specific and predictable dates, people standing on Observatory Mound viewed the moon rising above the parallel walls connecting the circle to the octagon through the octagon's farthest entryway.

What would have compelled SAI leaders to take time from their conference agenda and travel thirty miles from Columbus to the Newark Earthworks in October 1911? Why might they have chosen to gather at Observatory Mound to sing? Had knowledge of the relationship between the moon and the carved land in the heart of the Eastern Woodlands been lost to their elders and spiritual leaders? Or had some of the participants heard stories from an earlier time but chose not to reveal this sacred knowledge? Perhaps they did not see how this knowledge could be used to address the urgent issues of the day when, all around them, unprecedented social changes were taking place. As educated and accomplished American Indian leaders, the Society's members were keen to confront the new society for the improvement of American Indian lives.

Indians were being left behind in the transformative rush sweeping the nation and, worse, were being denigrated as being incapable of participating in American life. Would ancient knowledge have been considered relevant for the goals set by the SAI membership as they looked to the future? In the SAI'S "Provisional Platform of the American Indian Association," under the heading "Objects of the Association," the group writes: "While the Association and its founders most sincerely appreciate the splendid elements and achievements of the old-time Indian culture and the methods by which early conditions were met, it realizes most keenly the inefficacy of these methods in meeting the conditions of modern times."

Even so, the group likely stood together on the ancient Observatory Mound amid beautiful fall foliage and meditated on what had been and what was yet to be--surely with a mixture of grief, outrage, and the highest of expectations.

The American Indian scholars attending the SAI Centennial Symposium held at The Ohio State University in 2011 had a grasp of North American history that provided insight to both the struggles of the 1911 Society of American Indians and the cultural significance of the ancient Ohio earthworks. Research and analysis had identified factors contributing to the anguish of American Indians at the turn of the century. The Society's inability to bring about social and political change had been the result of some of these factors. At the turn of the century, when millions of immigrants were arriving in America, 250,000 American Indians were alive in the United States ("1900s"; Thornton). This demographic represented the nadir of a population of millions that had existed before Europeans began to colonize the continent, and the implications of this outcome were understood only in the latter third of the twentieth century (see, for example, Mann 1493; Stannard). Indians were emerging from catastrophic historical events that occurred over the course of four centuries. In 1911 the SAI leaders may not have comprehended this history with the clarity possible today.

Much has changed in the country since 1911. Many of the goals important to the SAI are still being addressed, and some have long been resolved. American Indians won the right to vote in the 1920s. Organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund, and the American Indian Movement were established to represent tribal interests and to redress injustices through the legal system and activism. Tribal sovereignty has been upheld, and the United Nations' Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People was endorsed by the Obama administration in 2010, with the promise of tribal negotiations based on nation-to-nation relationships with the US government. These rights and policies have been utilized to protect sacred sites and cultural items throughout the country on both federal and private lands. Almost none of these strides, however, influence Indian affairs in Ohio.

Ironically, visitors to the Octagon Earthworks in 2011 had less access to the earthworks than the SAI participants would have had in 1911. In 1911 the Great Circle and Octagon Earthworks were public parks, although the Octagon Earthworks had already been leased by a private golf club; part of the agreement was that the public was welcome to tour the grounds. By 2011, the Great Circle was a state park, while the Octagon Earthworks were owned by the Ohio Historical Society and the lease with Moundbuilders Country Club had been strengthened over the years to protect the club's use of the site. In the interim, the country club built a clubhouse, swimming pool, maintenance buildings, and parking lots. A professional eighteen-hole golf course had been constructed on the grounds of the Octagon Earthworks, trees planted and memorial plaques set in the ground, an underground irrigation system installed to maintain the greens, and sidewalks for golf carts built into the walls of the giant circle and along the length of the ancient walkway connecting the octagon and circle.

Public access to the earthworks was restricted for decades while the Moundbuilders Country Club expanded its membership and golf course with hardly any reaction from the community. However, Hively and Horn's revelation that the Octagon Earthworks was built to track the moon's eighteen-year cycle attracted the attention of archaeologists, the local community, and the central Ohio American Indian community. In addition, by the 1980s federal legislation was enacted to uphold American Indian religious rights and to preserve sacred sites on federal lands, raising general awareness of Indigenous issues. When the country club announced plans to build a much larger clubhouse, the local community organized an activist group, Friends of the Mounds, and held public meetings in 2000 to halt further expansion of the club's activities at the earthworks. This effort was successful. Further, pressure from the Friends group led to negotiations between Moundbuilders Country Club and the Ohio Historical Society that provided for limited public access whereby visitors can view the earthworks from a ten-foot observation platform and walk around the southern perimeter during the day. The public outcry did not occur in time to prevent the extension of the club's lease to the year 2078 (see "Newark Earthworks"). By then the Moundbuilders Country Club will have occupied the Octagon Earthworks for 168 years.

As part of the 2011 Centennial Symposium activities, organizers planned a trip to visit the Newark Earthworks to echo the events of the 1911 conference. Arrangements for a tour of the earthworks were labored, and after negotiations between the country club and the Ohio Historical Society a compromise was reached to allow the scholars to tour the Octagon Earthworks for about an hour and, in the absence of golfers, climb atop Observatory Mound and walk from the circle to the octagon through the connecting walkway.

In 2011 many of the American Indians who participated in the Centennial Symposium and traveled to Newark experienced the earthworks for the first time, some literally as strangers in their own ancestral homelands. They passed through the entryways to the Octagon or Great Circle or moved along processional walkways defined as "visitor" rather than "relative" American Indians have not been granted cultural authority at earthworks sites to take on roles such as steward, spiritual leader, or tribal interpreter, because there has been no formal tribal presence in the region for more than 160 years. There are currently no federally recognized tribal governments in the state of Ohio.

As recently as 2010 Gall Zion, a community member, first observed that a "history of erasure" explained the contradictions inherent in a region that had so many earthworks and conical mounds but no federally recognized tribal nations. Although the Indians who lived in the Ohio Valley during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries successfully thwarted permanent American settlements, by 1795 crowding and increasingly violent and frequent conflicts with settlers and militia caused tribal groups to begin to leave Ohio. By 1850 the Wyandotte Nation was the last tribe to be forcibly removed by the federal government (see Mancall and Merrell for a description of the impact of Removal). Earthworks, formerly inhabited villages, earthen architecture, and burial mounds that had stood undisturbed for hundreds and thousands of years disappeared rapidly under the settlements, towns, and cities established throughout the region, accompanied by transportation infrastructure and factories. The term Hopewell--as in Hopewell people or Hopewell culture--refers to an American landowner rather than to the Indigenous people of the area, because there were no known people associated with the earthworks at the time.

During the mid-nineteenth century, farming and construction activities at mound sites revealed tens of thousands of artifacts, many from gravesites, most of which were not documented or cataloged. The people who built the earthworks also produced resplendent objects made from materials found in all regions of the eastern woodlands of North America and interred their relatives and honored leaders with jewelry, art, and regalia. Obsidian from the Rocky Mountains was carved into huge ceremonial spear points. Cutouts of exotic designs were made of copper from the Upper Great Lakes and mica from the Carolinas. Copper was used to make ear spools and pan pipes, while gifted artists sculpted stone tablet carvings and stone pipes in the shape of animals (for an overview of art related to earthen architecture see Townsend).

Without any tribal presence to observe, resist, or influence events, the unearthed cultural objects triggered an aggressive agenda in the developing scientific community to excavate, survey, and catalog ancient and historic sites (Thomas). Unknown numbers of items collected from farm fields and riverbanks were auctioned and sold in a robust artifact collection trade that continues into the present (for a description of artifacts see Hothem; for examples of auctioned items see Johnson). Legislation was not enacted to protect ancient or historic graves, or to protect the earthworks. But laws were passed to protect gravesites dating less than 120 years (Wallace). By the time of the 1911 conference--and continuing far into the twentieth century--scientific excavations of huge burial mounds to ground level and the looting of ancient and historic sites on private land were considered acceptable practices (see Thomas; Baird; Massle).

In the fall of 2011, as a shimmery frost covered the ground on a beautiful sunny morning, approximately fifty Native professors, artists, and community members gathered on Observatory Mound. Many stepped forward to sing songs of their nations. The group listened intently to the director of the Newark Earthworks Center, as he meticulously described everything known about the earthworks. As it happened, there were few golfers on the grounds, and the group was able to experience most of the features of the Octagon Earthworks. Once the group arrived at the Great Circle, where access is unrestricted, individuals began peeling off from the tour. They wanted to relate to the Great Circle on their own terms. They wanted to be quiet. Several stood in silent contemplation along the edge of the enormous circle. Others lay on the ground to feel the earth, hear the cicadas in the trees, and listen for earthworks harmonies. This is not unusual behavior when Native people visit earthworks.

The Newark Earthworks Center at The Ohio State University's regional campus at Newark was established in 2006. The center's educational and research mission promotes new ways of thinking about Ohio's past and the Indigenous people who created the earthworks through interdisciplinary research, educational resources for teachers and students, and partnerships with communities and tribes. The center has reached out to representatives of Ohio's tribal governments who left Ohio in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to discuss preservation and interpretation of the earthworks and to invite them to share their views, to participate in events and projects, and to tour the earthworks.

From its inception the center's partners anticipated that American Indian experts would be identified who are able to enrich the understanding of earthworks cultures specific to the Ohio Valley. However, the NEC has not encountered American Indian people with specialized cultural knowledge about the Ohio earthworks before they learned of them through the center and were invited to visit. This situation seemed puzzling. It was not difficult to locate scholars, architects, historians, and archaeologists with no Native ties that had expertise relevant to the ancient Ohio cultures or to monuments encoded with astronomical alignments in other places. At first we did not consider this lack of specific Native knowledge an urgent matter. Non-Native experts provided a wealth of information for understanding how and when earthworks were built, what materials were used, and the postcontact histories of ancient sites.

Over time, there has been recognition of the obligation to develop more nuanced interpretations of the so-called Hopewell culture and the earthworks. Until Choctaw writer and intellectual LeAnne Howe visited the earthworks and observed that the ancient Indigenous games of "base and ball" and stickball could have been played at the Newark Earthworks (Howe), our tour narratives emphasized the sites themselves, as physical entities, rather than how the earthworks might have related to people's lives, and they focused primarily on the idea of somber ceremonial activities. Howe's enthusiasm reinvigorated the narratives to include descriptions of gatherings infused with familiar Indian activities: feasts, singing, games, races, meetings, storytelling, and trading.

A balanced approach would include American Indian traditions and knowledge alongside the historical, architectural, and archaeological knowledge. American Indian traditions will provide insight into the purpose and meaning of the earthworks. Archaeological study has provided answers about the earthwork sites: when the earthworks were built and descriptions of construction methods, their locations identified and cataloged, and their proximity to notable geographic features. Aerial photography and remote sensing of level ground have once again made visible earthworks foundations under plowed and fallow fields. After thousands of years, these constructions continue to exist and could be recovered. Early excavations--often rushed, unregulated, and incompetent--set the stage for the earnest interpretations of the earthworks most often repeated now. The prominence of burial mounds within earthworks complexes and findings of extravagant gifts adorning those interred within them likely contributed to a romanticized view of this culture, which were then embellished with aspects of histories from other continents.

The astronomical function of the enigmatic Octagon Earthworks became clear only after the application of astronomy, science, mathematics, and history. But the cultural meaning still eludes us. The earthworks are evidence of the physical, spiritual, and intellectual vitality of Indigenous people in North America. The cultural achievements of the so-called Hopewell were not isolated; they were the result of accumulated knowledge (see Diamond). Perhaps they are one path to understanding the breadth of Indigenous experience in North America before contact. But we need to develop an approach to understanding the cultural significance of the earthworks and the historical significance of the region over time that includes Native knowledge as central.

Tribal participation in the interpretation and management of the ancient and historical landscape is vital to the Indigenous legacy of Ohio. The tribes who lived in the Ohio Valley during the historical era were the most recent Indigenous caretakers of the earthworks (see "Historic American Indian Tribes"). They lived among the earthen complexes, the effigies, and the grave mounds. They knew earthworks existed, understood they were made by their ancestors, and did not disturb them. They did not excavate (see Gamble). These tribes, including the Shawnee, Miami, Wyandotte, Seneca-Cayuga, Delaware, and Ottawa, deserve gratitude and recognition for their stewardship. Much was lost during the Removal Era, perhaps even earthworks knowledge from a prior time from among the numerous Indian groups living in the Great Lakes region.

For thousands of years, mounds and earthworks have been built by many cultures throughout the eastern third of North America. The implications are intriguing: travel along the waterways between places in the Eastern Woodlands would have been facilitated by familiarity with wildlife and plants. Trade might have easily brought travelers into contact with groups engaged in earthen architecture. Research showing the existence of mounds and earthworks across the Eastern Woodlands and the origin of imported materials found in Ohio might identify possible links between the ancient earthworks and the traditions of contemporary tribes. So-called Hopewell earthworks are unique in both design and concentration. However, contemporary tribes who maintain traditions and language relating to mounds and earthen monuments might contribute by providing guidance for the interpretation and development of management plans. Several tribes who continue to build mounds and earthworks are actively engaged in cultural maintenance and research about their histories.

The earthworks exemplify Indigenous accomplishment, collaboration, extensive planning, and the application of scientific understanding in which American Indians can find inspiration for future generations. Indians have been willing to support the current preservation strategies with minimal consultation and participation in decisions concerning the interpretation of cultural matters and sites, archaeological research, legislative reform, and so on. But as more Indian people and tribal governments learn about the so-called Hopewell culture, this may change. While American Indian stewardship does not appear to be a likely outcome in the near future, legal remedies are still needed to protect ancient and historic sites and graves, and the institutions that own earth-works need to incorporate American Indian and tribal consultation into their management plans. The Newark Earthworks are owned by the Ohio Historical Society, as are many of the major earthworks sites in the state. The National Park Service owns the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park. There are many mounds and village sites on private land. The determination of the SAI leaders can be informative. Although the SAI may not have achieved its goals while the organization existed, their priorities continue to be relevant for tribal governments today: recognition of tribal sovereignty, civil rights, local government, cultural preservation, and access to educational and economic opportunities. One legacy of the SAI is the understanding that change is difficult to achieve, that it can fracture alliances and be derailed by historical forces, but, over time, it is nonetheless possible.

Those who imagined and constructed the Newark Earthworks used the earth and sky to bring into existence something central and transformational to their communities. The form of the Octagon Earthworks is a pictograph of two different shapes joined together. The small perfect circle outside the walls of the octagon calls for ceremony. The open entryways of the octagon invite people to enter the site. Following the walkway, people enter the circle. Observatory Mound offers a view of the rising moon at its peak standstill moments. The circle, ubiquitous among Indigenous cultures as a symbol of life's cycles, could represent the physical world, while the rising moon above the octagon brings the spiritual world closer, signaling that it is time for community events to begin--or end. The Newark Earthworks await a more thorough interpretation than the one offered here, one based in Indigenous traditions, languages, and histories.

Historian Donald Fixico (Shawnee/Sac and Fox/Muskogee) was among the first contemporary American Indian scholars to see the Newark Earthworks. As a guest of the Newark Earthworks Center, he toured the earthworks and casually met with community members and colleagues over lunch. He was asked about his thoughts concerning the earthworks and all he had seen. Everyone leaned forward. He raised his arms, and without intending to speak for American Indians in the twenty-first century, he said: "All of us who are Indian are descendants of the Mound builders, and their blood runs in our veins.


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Title Annotation:Plank 3; Society of American Indians
Author:Chaatsmith, Marti L.
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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