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Shawnee Citizens Officially Invited Back To Great Serpent Mound

The view from the trail of the great serpent mound in Adams County
Chris Welter
/
WYSO
The view from the trail of the great serpent mound in Adams County

The Serpent Mound in Adams County is the largest prehistoric effigy mound in the world. Each year, the head of the serpent aligns with the summer solstice sunset in late June. A few weekends ago, visitors flocked to the site to see it for themselves. But this year was different. It was the first time citizens of the Shawnee tribes in Oklahoma were officially invited back to the mound by the state of Ohio. The Shawnee were forcibly removed from their Ohio homeland in the 19th century. WYSO’s Chris Welter spoke with reporter Mary Annette Pember about her reporting during the weekend. Pember is a National Correspondent for Indian Country News.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Chris: Why was it significant for members of the Shawnee tribe to officially return to the Serpent Mound?

Mary: The Shawnee people were removed in eighteen thirty during a policy called The Dawes Act and the Indian Removal Act, and moved to Oklahoma. So Ohio is their homeland and surely of any people living today, they have the strongest connection to the people who likely built the Serpent Mound.

Chris: And they were also there to educate and inform visitors?

Mary: Yes. And this is the first time they've been officially invited there by any of the entities that have managed the Serpent Mound. Recently, the Ohio History Connection took over direct management, and they extended this official invitation to the Shawnee tribe to come back and to talk about their connection to that place. In the past, during the solstice celebrations on the occurrence of the solstice and the equinox, there have been a lot of activities at the serpent mound, but none of them were very connected to the origins of that place.

People have really been turning a lot more to New Age spirituality. I don't want to disparage anybody's spirituality, but some of the beliefs they have, they seem a little bit misguided and they often seem to be sort of made up. They sort of just add things at their pleasure. I think that unwittingly, it can be really offensive to native people because they often appropriate certain elements of native culture that they probably don't know very much about. They often will take what they do know from popular culture, which are unto itself is a misrepresentation of native culture and also sort of creates like a Pan-Indian or Pan-Native approach to the world. And there are over five hundred federally recognized tribes in the United States. There's such a diverse community. I think this kind of cherry picking of culture in many ways is the height of white privilege, if you will. Just the tremendous luxury to just be able to choose whatever appeals to you, to incorporate it into your spirituality without any regard for how the original people might feel about that. It's very disrespectful regardless of the intent.

Chris: The subtitle of your article says, “Ancestors of Native Americans, not prehistoric giants or space aliens, built the mound in Ohio.” Can you talk about why that needs to be clarified?

Mary: Since there's an absence really of native people in Ohio, I mean, there are native people in Ohio, I live here, most of us are transplants and there are no federally recognized tribes in Ohio, there has been a proliferation of these kinds of unusual notions about the origins of the Serpent Mound—some of those have been more outlandish than others. Some people believe that somehow prehistoric giants created the mounds. There has been another narrative forwarded that it was aliens from another planet that came to the area to seek fuel that was available nearby. People have felt pretty much free to forward those theories and organizers and the managers of the serpent by allowing those people to be there and present these theories they've kind of imbued these theories with a certain amount of authenticity. So I think the history connection realized that it would certainly be important for them to reach out to the indigenous peoples that are actually from Ohio and from this region to counter those kinds of narratives.

Chris: Why do these outlandish narratives demean native heritage?

Mary: Just the very fact of suggesting that it had to be aliens or some prehistoric giants, I think it dismisses the idea that indigenous people would have had the expertise and the knowledge to engage in building such a beautiful earthwork. So just disregarding that, I think there's a real racist element in that.

Chris: So can you tell me what you heard about what the mound actually is and what it actually means to the Shawnee people?

Mary: For one, it connects them to place in that their ancestors lived here. The symbol of the serpent is actually present in some of their spirituality and their stories and their ways. I think it was like a real coming home to them and they felt an important connection by being there. They spoke a lot about reclaiming that space.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.