Newark Earthworks Day draws a crowd: Reawakening for an ancient site

Published in Indian Country Today in September 2006.

A dazzling fall day, with gold and russet trees against a bright blue sky, greeted the processional that opened Newark Earthworks Day, an annual shindig in Newark, Ohio, that mixes speeches and scholarly presentations with feasting, conviviality and prayer. Richard Brings Them, Standing Rock Sioux, led a processional across Ohio State University’s Newark campus that included traditional inhabitants of Ohio, such as the Shawnee, and other indigenous residents, such as the Lakota, who arrived in the state during the 20th century.

Native and non-Native scholars, visitors from across the continent and townspeople of all ages filled the ranks as well. All told, about 300 people turned up to celebrate the 2,000-year-old Newark Earthworks and, by extension, the architectural, engineering and astronomical achievements of their builders: Ohio’s original peoples.

The local earthworks — a national historic landmark that is among the thousands of mounds, or artificial hills, and earthen-walled enclosures across the Midwest and Southeast — have captured the imagination of area residents, many of whom hope the golf course that currently sits on them may one day relocate. To encourage studies of the site, Ohio State University recently formed the Newark Earthworks Center. It’s directed by Dr. Richard Shiels, a history professor; Marti Chaatsmith, Comanche-Choctaw, is program coordinator.

The Newark Earthworks have also drawn the attention of folks around Ohio. The day’s first speaker, State Senator Jay Hottinger, described children from a Newark elementary school persuading the legislature to make the site the state prehistoric monument. At first, Hottinger admitted, he didn’t think the kids would succeed: “I thought they’d simply learn about the legislative process. But their passion lit a fire.”

Far from being relics of the past, earthworks are part of Native life today, a point made by Second Chief Alfred Berryhill, of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which maintains a mound-building tradition. Dr. Jay Miller, Delaware, director of the American Indian Studies Program at Ohio State University, introduced Berryhill, shown right, calling him “a man of great vision,” who has revitalized practices devastated during the Muscogee’s removal from their Georgia homeland to Oklahoma and has devised community-development programs that include health clinics and businesses.

            Berryhill, a Methodist minister and speaker of his indigenous language, opened with a Muscogee hymn and prayer. He went on to describe his visits to Georgia mounds and others, such as Cahokia, in Illinois. Using an overhead projector, Berryhill then plotted concordances between rituals and objects of the Old Testament and those of the Creeks. The plan of the Tabernacle, he demonstrated, was similar to that of the Creek ceremonial ground, which is, in turn, represented in the layout, activities and personnel of today’s Creek Christian churches.

            Berryhill’s saga has been personal: “When I became a minister and would ask about the ceremonial ground, my dad, who’s also a minister, would say, ‘That’s of the devil.’ But you know us preachers’ sons, we disobey and go find out for ourselves.” His efforts have also been part of reconstructing his nation’s identity. “I’m doing this so next time someone asks a community member what it means to be Creek, they’ll answer: ‘How much time you got?’”

            In a separate interview, Berryhill praised the efforts of scientists who’ve studied the mounds: “We should work in concert. Archaeologists and anthropologists find out things we’ve forgotten since removal. We can then incorporate these ideas into our lives.”

Archaeology, however, also drew criticism. “There are things worth knowing in what archaeologists do,” said Dr. Robert Warrior, Osage, professor of English and Native American Studies of the University of Oklahoma, in his speech. “But there are also well-justified suspicions about archaeology in Native communities. No regulations or promises will undo the history of plunder that’s unfolded on this continent.” Indeed, archaeologists have excavated mounds down to several feet below the earth’s surface and removed human remains, grave goods and religious artifacts.

On the other hand, less invasive disciplines have succeeded in revealing engaging information. Two Earlham College faculty members, Dr. Robert Horn, professor of philosophy, and Dr. Ray Hively, professor of physics and astronomy, shown left, presented their latest research. In a slide presentation, Hively showed the virtuostic accuracy of the Newark Earthworks, in terms of both their geometric forms and their many alignments with celestial events. The site, Hively noted, was built to a higher standard than that used by modern surveyors. The site is as gigantic as it is precise, he added, and Stonehenge and Egypt’s Great Pyramid could be tucked into its corners.

Equally fascinating were the many geometrical puzzles Hively has found within the Newark site, including equal perimeters for a square and a circle and the diameter of that same circle — more than 1,000 feet — used as a giant yardstick to locate the center points of other enclosures.

According to Hively, the site’s builders may have chosen its location because of the surrounding topography, where the Newark Earthworks’ major celestial alignments appear to be related to outlying hills and valleys. In addition to being blessed by the heavens, the tract is encircled by water in the form of creeks and rivers, thus offering a schematic of the North American indigenous universe: Turtle Island surrounded by the primordial sea.

And finally, during the site’s heyday, materials and artifacts from across the continent — copper from the Great Lakes region, silver from Canada, obsidian from the Rockies, mica from the Carolinas and shells from the Gulf of Mexico — were brought to it, possibly by pilgrims, according to archaeologist Dr. Bradley Lepper. Taken all together, these characteristics point to the Newark Earthworks having been a place of great healing power to which worshipers brought these offerings.

The healing continues to this day, said Carol Welsh, Sisseton-Wahpeton, director of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio: “In this magnificent place, we are renewing the sacred. In school, I learned that my people were savages. But now I see I come from people who were beautiful and intelligent. I see the sacredness of being Indian.”
         Reflecting on the good will the Newark Earthworks are engendering, Lepper, the day’s final speaker, noted that long ago they were a pilgrimage place, a center: “And now they are a center again.” 

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photos c. Joseph Zummo.

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