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Why a UNESCO site and a golf course share the same place in Ohio

The moonrise over the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. (Courtesy of University of Cincinnati Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites)
The moonrise over the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. (Courtesy of University of Cincinnati Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites)

Ohio now has its first United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site. UNESCO recently recognized eight ancient sites in the state, known as the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks.

Indigenous people created the sites more than 1,500 years ago. Ohio was once the home of many different tribes, but all were forced to surrender their land after the Indian Removal Act passed in 1830.

“The people may have been forced to leave, but we did not want the things that our ancestors created and built and loved and protected, to be destroyed,” says Chief Glenna Wallace, leader of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Chief Wallace helped secure the UNESCO designation.

One location features an octagon shape that perfectly matches an 18.6-year lunar cycle. But that site also hosts an active golf course.

The Moundbuilders Country Club has leased the land for more than 100 years. And the club has said it’s willing to give up the lease. The Ohio Supreme Court also ruled the club had to relinquish the lease less than a year ago, but the parties involved can’t agree on the cost of buying out the lease.

Octagon Observatory Circle. (Courtesy of John Hancock via the Ohio History Connection)

Interview highlights

On how she learned about the earthworks in Newark, Ohio

“I was elected chief in 2006. One of the most famous Shawnee warriors was Tecumsah, and I had read a biography of Tecumsah, written by John Sugden, a famous English author. And the Ohio State University was sponsoring an Indigenous series of different lecturers each month, and this particular month, John Sugden was presenting a program on the biography he had written, of Tecumseh.

“I had traveled deliberately from Oklahoma to Ohio just to hear John Sugden. Never once did I think about the mounds.

“So when I went to hear John Sugden speak, I did not know that it is a requirement of the university that the lecturer and any who wanted to attend would go to Newark, which is within about 30 minutes of Columbus to see the Newark Earthwork Mounds. I had never heard of the Newark Earthwork Mounds, and I went simply because John Sugden was going to be there and it was another day that I could spend talking and listening to him.

“So I was as shocked as anyone. Whenever I went to the Newark Earthwork Mounds, I had no idea that there was a golf course on top of the mounds, which is very disrespectful.”

On what people thousands of years ago did at these sites

“These mounds range from four feet high up to 14 feet high. They are all man-made with Mother Earth, and it’s important to us to use the term Mother Earth rather than soil or dirt.

“They were built by Indigenous people who came here as a religious pilgrimage every single year. And they came for spiritual reasons, for thanksgiving, for worship, for fellowship. And as they came from all parts of the United States, they always brought with them baskets full of Mother Earth from the area where they came. Therefore, there are objects, qualities, rocks, and minerals in this Mother Earth wall that differ from place to place.

“They were built voluntarily because people wanted to build them, and they took quite some time to build. But as there are eight different mounds there in Ohio, each would be somewhat different.”

On what getting the UNESCO designation felt like

“We were in Saudi Arabia a week ago, and it was unbelievable because we were told that we had the best nomination that they had seen in years and years. So two nominations before, they spent two hours making comments and making amendments to that particular nomination.

“When they came to ours, there were absolutely no comments. There were absolutely no amendments. From the moment that it was brought up until the moment that it was approved as a World Heritage Site, it was less than three minutes, probably more like two, minutes.

“That is definitely a compliment, but at the same time, I sat there and thought: this can’t be happening this quickly. There are so many people in this room that I’m sure not all of them have read the nomination and not a word has been said about what this nomination is about.

“So there was exhilaration tinged with disappointment at the same time.”

What she wants people to remember when they look at the earthworks

“The people who built these had to be geniuses. They had to have total mastery of mathematics, total mastery of astronomy. They had to know geology. They had to know about architecture.

They had to have an aesthetic knowledge about themselves. They were not only geniuses, but I say uncommon geniuses. And I want people to realize that. The tribes may have been removed from Ohio, but it’s not taught in the history books. It’s not taught in the schools, and many people there actually believe that the Indians died and that they disappeared whenever they left Ohio.

“That’s not true. I want them to know that those are our ancestors. That they are geniuses. They are not savages, and we as a race still exist today and we are still maintaining our culture, still maintaining our language, still maintaining the pride that our forefathers had.”

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Healy also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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