How Ohio’s Native Sacred Sites Became a Religious Flashpoint

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (RNS) – Chief Glenna Wallace spent the summer solstice last June trekking the narrow asphalt path that surrounds Serpent Mound, a low serpentine earth wall built by her ancestors hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Wallace, who heads the Shawnee Tribe of Eastern Oklahoma, was joined by Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe, and the two spoke to crowds of visitors to the historic site about their tribes’ ties to the mound. and 19th century policies that forced them out of the area.

“We ran programs to let people know that tribes still exist, that people still exist,” Wallace told Religion News Service in a recent phone call. “We’re still alive, we’re still active. These are still spiritual places for us.

As they spoke, the sounds of flute music and a “Native American style” drum demonstration filtered through the air from the nearby Soaring Eagle retreat, where people had gathered to commemorate the solstice with crystal workshops and a presentation by a local Bigfoot investigator and other speakers who suggested aliens or giants built the mound.

Southern Ohio is home to more than 70 earthworks built by the indigenous Adena and Hopewell cultures. These structures are still important to their descendants – the Shawnee, Eastern Shawnee, Miami and Delaware who were driven from the area 200 years ago by white American settlers. Some of the structures were built as burial mounds, while others functioned as astronomical observatories or ritual or religious structures.

But the mounds have taken on significance for other spiritual groups as well. Terri Rivera, who has been inviting people to celebrate equinoxes and solstices at Serpent Mound for a decade, believes the site should be open to anyone who considers it a sacred place.

“For me it’s a real place of healing,” Rivera said during a visit to the mound in November. “I think people were probably drawn here because of the energy fields.”

Theories about the origins of the burial mounds have also led to attacks from marginal evangelical Christians who view them as ungodly. Tribal leaders responded by educating locals about the mounds and working with groups such as the Ohio History Connection, the nonprofit that runs Serpent Mound and other mounds throughout Ohio, to make sure that they are respected.

“We believe that some of the activities that have taken place there in the past are in direct violation of our beliefs,” Wallace said. “And therefore we ask that our practices not be violated.”

Their efforts are part of a larger battle for access to sacred sites, from the mountains of Arizona to the rivers of North Dakota, to push back developers or government agencies to preserve physical integrity directly related to their spiritual value.

The federal government is sometimes a partner, sometimes not. In Ohio, the United States is working to add nine Ohio earthworks, including Serpent Mound, to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, a move that would provide additional resources to save the mounds .

The interest of practitioners of alternative faiths is also a mixed blessing. While the New Ages often share a belief in the spiritual power of Native American sites, they have occasionally caused damage. In 2012, a group called Unite the Collective, whose members identified themselves as “Light Warriors,” buried hundreds of orgonites – balls of crystals and resin, often made in muffin tins – at Serpent Mound. in order to concentrate the vibrations of the earth.

A map of Serpent Mound from “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley,” published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1848. Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons

Sites like Serpent Mound have served as gathering places for New Age spiritual practitioners since the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, when believers gathered on a day they believed to be auspicious according to the Mayan calendar. The Newark earthworks, about 40 minutes east of Columbus, have also drawn attention for being supposedly built along Ley Lines – invisible grid lines that channel “earthly energies.”

In 2011, Serpent Mound was featured on an episode of the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens”, in which several people claimed that the mound may have been used as a landing site by aliens. (Rivera’s husband Tom Johnson appeared as a guest on the show, saying he had heard such stories.)

And on the eve of the winter solstice last December, Dave Daubenmire, a conservative activist and leader of Pass the Salt Ministries in Hebron, Ohio, led a group to Serpent Mound to perform a prayer to cast demons away from the site. Daubenmire said in a video on Facebook that he believed the Ohio Earthworks were built by Nephilim, a race of giants who some say are the offspring of fallen angels and human women.

For many, these claims echo the racist “mound-builder myth”, which attributes the building of the mounds to an ancient white race – an idea used by 19e-century politicians to justify the expulsion of indigenous tribes from their lands.

Daubenmire’s group was greeted by protesters from the American Indian Movement of Ohio, although the organization was not sanctioned by the official American Indian Movement. (The group’s director, Philip Yenyo, identifies himself as a Native American but is of Hungarian and Mexican Spanish descent, according to AIM.)

Rivera criticized both Unite the Collective and Pass the Salt Ministries, saying the mounds provide an opportunity for people with different beliefs to come together, as long as they respect the site.

“One of our sayings for our events is: all nations, all races, all relationships,” said Rivera, who describes himself as having Native American ancestors but is not a member of a recognized tribe. “So it’s time to stop dividing. Just say, hey, let’s all be friends.

But Wallace said the belief in the spiritual power of the mounds can cause people to disrespect the history and sanctity of the mounds. She saw people using drugs in Serpent Mound during the Winter Solstice and heard of people having sex there, believing it would increase their fertility. Even the drum that took place on the last solstice event, although characterized by the organizers as “ceremonial,” seemed disrespectful to Wallace – more like a “rock concert” than an act of reverence.

Joe Laycock, assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University, said interest in Native American traditions dates back to the spiritualist movement of the 1800s, when settlers’ guilt for the displacement and destruction of Native communities may have had them. driven to obsession. It exploded in the 1960s, when alternative spiritual practitioners began to incorporate “pseudo-native” folklore.

The syncretism of the New Age movement – what Laycock calls a “sectarian milieu” of different spiritual beliefs and practices – is evident in Rivera’s rally in December. The event will include a Peruvian healing ceremony, presentation by a psychic medium and “animal communicator”, ceremonial drums, lessons in “sacred geology” and traditional Maori dance, or haka.

Not all who attend these gatherings identify as New Age – including Rivera, who has said she is largely spiritual – but this type of big tent approach is a hallmark of the movement, Laycock said.

This year, following input from Wallace and Barnes, OHC began preventing groups from assembling directly on the mound, meaning the Rivera Serpent Mound Star Knowledge Winter Solstice Peace Summit will be held at six. miles from Serpent Mound.

Whatever their beliefs, visitors to the mounds should show respect for the spiritual nature of the sites, said John Low, director of the Newark Earthworks Center and registered citizen of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians. The mounds are no less sacred than a church or mosque, Low said, although their sacredness is unrelated to what is being built on the land.

“The land they are built on was sacred, is sacred, always will be sacred,” Low said.


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