Golfers control 2,000-year-old lunar observatory: Politics obscure the spirituality of a vast Ohio mound complex

Published in Indian Country Today in September 2006.

Look, we’ve won,” quipped Mark Welsh, Yankton Dakota-Mohawk, as he stood on a wooden viewing tower and watched golfers plant a white pennant on a hole of the Moundbuilders Country Club golf course, in Newark, Ohio. “They’re surrendering.”

The golf course sits on the Newark Earthworks, the world’s largest mound complex, built 2,000-years ago by ancestral indigenous people in what was then a managed prairie landscape, kept largely free of trees by periodic burning. The site includes grass-covered, precisely sculpted earthen walls defining a 20-acre circle and a 50-acre octagon, as well as freestanding mounds, or artificial hills. Portions of the vast installation align with important lunar events — including the northernmost and southernmost rises and sets of the moon’s 18.6-year cycle. Walled roads as long as 60 miles appear to have connected it to other mound complexes around central Ohio.

Denison College professor emeritus of physics and astronomy Michael Mickelson, shown left, calls the site “an ancient solid-state lunar computer, ” and a British archaeologist cataloging wonders of the ancient world recently placed it on the list.

Welsh was joined on the viewing tower by a group that’s working to obtain meaningful public access to the complex, including Marti Chaatsmith, Comanche-Choctaw, program coordinator of the Newark Earthworks Center, a program of Ohio State University (OSU) at Newark; Christine Ballengee-Morris, Eastern Band Cherokee, art education professor at OSU’s main campus in Columbus; Carol Welsh, Sisseton-Wahpeton, director of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO), in Columbus; and several community members.

This year, October 14 is Newark Earthworks Day. NAICCO, Denison University, Newark Earthworks Center and other organizations will draw attention to indigenous people’s concerns with speakers, music and more on the OSU-Newark campus. (For information, go to OctagonMoonrise.org.)

The Ohio Historical Society (OHS), a private nonprofit, owns the tract and has leased it to the country club since the early 20th century. The first leases stipulated that the earthworks be “restored and preserved” and that non-club members be allowed entry. These requirements disappeared in later leases, which currently net OHS about $30,000 annually, a small fraction of its multi-million-dollar budget. The most recent deal, in 1997, extended the club’s tenure from 2028 to 2078.

Except for a few golf-free days each year, non-club members may view the earthworks only from the tower and a short sidewalk. Arranging additional access has been difficult. In 2002, Barbara Crandell, a Cherokee elder praying at the site, was told to leave by course personnel. When she refused, she was arrested and later convicted of criminal trespass, according to court documents.

During 2005 and 2006, the Newark Earthworks Center negotiated with OHS to schedule events at the mounds to celebrate the northernmost moonrises of the current cycle (the most extreme northern rise is shown left). However, after the programs, the center’s staff reported to OHS that at various times country club representatives shut down the site at the last minute, refused to provide golf carts to elderly guests, walked cocktails in hand across the mounds and blasted the tract with disco music.

A public moonrise viewing that OHS itself had arranged for later this fall has just been canceled. “In negotiating with the club, we were unable to obtain reasonable access for what we felt was a community learning experience,” said OHS spokeswoman Kathy Hoke.

The difficulties weren’t confined to those events, added Jeff Gill, a minister who leads OHS tours. He described golfers hitting balls toward Native people, reporters and others over the years. At one point, non-club members were offered Monday mornings as a visiting time, only to encounter workers in hazmat suits applying chemicals as part of regular course maintenance. “Takes care of their weed problem and their Indian problem at the same time,” commented Mark Welsh.

“Seeing the treatment Native people are subjected to has shocked non-Native people who’ve gotten involved,” said Chaatsmith. “Much of this has been so negative that most of our conversation has been about that, and about archaeology, and not about the sacredness of this place. Ohio is a state where removals occurred, so a lot of Native history has not been told, and Native voices have not been heard.”

The country club did not respond to requests for a comment, but OHS did. “We are aware things happened and are moving forward with the circumstances we have,” said Hoke. “We’re hoping to dialogue with all concerned and shift the focus to the significance of the site.”

Despite the negativity, moonrise events that did take place were meaningful to participants. “Grandmother Moon came, and we were there,” said Ballengee-Morris. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

Ensuring access for Native people is a moral issue, said Richard Shiels, OSU-Newark history professor and interim director of Newark Earthworks Center, who noted that protecting the mounds is critical, too. Since they’re privately owned, national preservation law doesn’t apply. There is a management plan; however, OHS hasn’t formally accepted it, and the site remains vulnerable.

For nearly a century, the country club has dug into the mounds to install tees, putting greens, sidewalks, a sprinkler system, about 40 memorial plaques and more. “The first clubhouse destroyed one hundred feet of the circle,” said Shiels. “Who knows what was lost when the pool went in.” Additional damage occurs during the off-season. Community member Gail Zion has observed the tracks of ATVs, dog-walkers and cross-country skiers in winter. “The ground is soft then, so they dig up the surface,” she said.

Further, maintenance the ancestral builders would have undertaken is no longer done, including removal of trees that are growing on the walls and damaging them with their roots.

Said Mark Welsh: “Native people in Ohio are trying to talk sense into the general population — to help them understand what a gift we have here and how it honors God. Someday we’ll take it back, and the golf course will go away. Just a theory. History will prove me right or wrong.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.

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