Shawnee tell Ohio Historical Society and New Agers to bring your books…Because School is in Session
This past summer two busloads of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma hit the road to pay a visit to the Ohio Historical Society at its headquarters adjacent to the state fairgrounds. The Oklahoma Shawnee were not on vacation mind you, but on a mission: to give the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) a history lesson. And as one OHS employee recalled in a diplomatic tone, “We’ve learned from our past.” The Oklahoma Shawnee had gotten wind that the Serpent Mound in southern Ohio – the world’s largest effigy mound and recently named by National Geographic as one of “Great Wonders of the Ancient World” – was becoming a popular destination for New Agers. Indeed, over the past three years at certain New Age-themed events the mound was surrounded by hundreds of admirers as their reverence for the mound was clearly on display. For the most part, New Agers are adherents to a spiritual thought system that borrows elements from several theologies (including Native American theology), and tend to thrive on mysticism and virtues of peace. At first the Oklahoma Shawnee chuckled at what some called the “white nerds,” their laughter reaching a crescendo in 2011 when an episode of the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens suggested the Serpent Mound was a land-based beacon for extraterrestrials thousands of years ago. But after the Oklahoma Shawnee heard that a Mayan-themed event two years ago sought to turn the Serpent into a portal to another world, and then a cult-like group desecrated the mound a year later by digging into it, they were ready to break out the war paint. Making things “stick in their craw” even more, said a Native American source, the Oklahoma Shawnee began to suspect that OHS, the owners of the mound’s property, along with the mound’s on-site caretakers, an organization called Arc of the Appalachia and the non-profit Friends of the Serpent Mound, were quietly promoting the mound to New Agers seeking their tourist dollars. The Oklahoma Shawnee told the Free Press they claim “stewardship” over the Serpent Mound’s heritage because their ancestors built the mound – ancestors who lived in the Ohio forests for thousands of years until the Indian Removal Act of the 1830s forced them to walk to Oklahoma in the middle of winter, killing many. The Shawnee see the mound as a sacred site akin to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall or the Great Pyramids of Giza, and any suggestion Native Americans did not build the mound or constructed it for purposes other than helping or representing their own culture is simply unacceptable. The Shawnee are dead serious, as they remain bitter about how more than 100 years ago Harvard University researchers dug up Native American skeletons buried near the Serpent and took them back East where the remains were lost. “We educated them (OHS) quite a bit,” said Eastern Shawnee tribal Chief Glenna J. Wallace, who led the Shawnee bus trip to OHS this past summer. “The Serpent Mound, along with the other mounds we left in Ohio, are sacred. The United States as a whole just doesn’t seem to be as dedicated to preserving Native American history or stopping these acts of vandalism. In foreign countries [at their sacred sites] they preserve and respect them — they don’t loot and dig them up and take their dead away.” OHS has no choice but to approve New Age celebrations at the mound considering an estimated 60 percent of its funding comes from taxpayer dollars. And as long as New Agers do not desecrate the mound or walk all over it, OHS says New Agers can continue to celebrate there. But OHS told the Free Press they’ve learned valuable lessons from the Shawnee, as they’ve opened up lines of communication and invited Shawnee delegates to Columbus. OHS and the Shawnee are now collaborating on educational programs, for instance, with the intent of teaching the public that Ohio’s 350-plus effigy mounds are to be cherished and recognized as distinctly Native American. OHS also wants to make it clear they do not endorse or support any New Age events not based on history, says Sharon Dean, director of Museum and Library Services for OHS. Dean is also OHS’s liaison to Native American tribes, as she attends several pow-wows a year in Oklahoma. This position has transformed Dean into the resident expert on what is called “The History of Removal.” An era and subject many Native Americans want to know more about, she says, and OHS is here to help. Dean says New Agers can have a spiritual connection or cultural connection to the mound, but OHS wants to make it clear they stand with the Shawnee and other tribes who are asking Serpent Mound revelers to not trivialize Native American history or twist it to their liking. “It’s walking that fine line,” said Dean about the Catch-22 situation OHS faces with Native Americans and New Agers. “There are groups in Ohio who feel they are the vanguards or guardians of Indian beliefs and history, but the federal tribes in Oklahoma don’t want any other groups to represent their history. The tribes bristle because it is their history and their beliefs. What if you had been oppressed and someone else is representing you about your history?” Mysteries of the Serpent Mound Two-hundred-fifty-million years ago an estimated billion-ton meteor blasted a hole into what is now southwestern Ohio and thus the groundwork was laid for the Serpent Mound. Located in the hard-scrabble town of Peebles in Adams County, about a two hour drive from Columbus, the mound was built on a cliff’s edge above a twisting river and lush forest. The Serpent undulates and curls for a quarter-mile, and the snake’s head appears to be devouring an egg, while others say the snake is swallowing the sun. Some believe the Serpent is a solar and lunar calendar of sorts, saying the head and the bending coils accurately mark all solstices and equinoxes. Others theorize the mound was built to honor an ancient Native American deity or a tribe that worshiped snakes; or the mound may be may be a “pointer” helping to guide departed spirits in the afterlife. Making the riddle of the Serpent even more complex is the fact the mound was built in the southwestern portion of the meteorite impact crater which is roughly five miles wide. The crater itself is alien to the rest of rural Ohio considering the meteorite upturned layers upon layers of rock and earth, and to this day locals swear the crater is prone to magnetic anomalies, as car batteries short-out in certain spots, for example. At the moment, two mainstream theories about who built the Serpent have taken the lead: the Adena culture built the mound sometime between 800 BC and 100 AD; or, as more recent evidence suggests, the mound is much younger – built by the Fort Ancient culture between 1000 AD and 1650 AD. But those who dismiss the mainstream theories believe the mound could be 5,000 years or older and built for reasons that are literally not of this world, considering the mound’s entirety can only be seen from a vantage point in the sky. And this is perhaps the Serpent’s greatest mystery: Exactly why was the mound built? What is its purpose? The Serpent’s great debate continues as it challenges a colorful group of experts that include archeologists, geologists, anthropologists, astrologists, paleontologists, fringe scientists and “archaeoastronomists.” The quest to answer the Serpent Mound mystery, however, has indirectly helped spark the stand-off between Native Americans and New Agers. The Oklahoma Shawnee say two New Age events in particular forced them to speak out to OHS. In 2011, world-renowned “Mayan elder” Hunbatz Men tried to “awaken” the Serpent’s “portal” by using crystal skulls. Some New Agers believe there are 13 crystal skulls, made of clear quartz, that are pre-Columbian “ancient computers,” and if unlocked can answer humanity’s most significant riddles. Apparently the 13 crystal skulls were at the mound that day, but these so-called ancient computers were deemed a fraud by many mainstream scientists over the last 10 years. And, according to, Hunbatz Men may not even be Mayan. Then in late 2012, a youth-dominated, nonsensical, Scientology-like group known as “Unite the Collective” buried an unknown number (perhaps dozens) of “orgonites” in the Serpent hoping to “reactivate it.” Orgonites, a combination of resin, metal shavings and a piece of quartz poured into a muffin tin and then hardened, are believed by New Agers to detect and measure “life energy” or “chi.” For a time they were sold at the mound’s on-site museum run by Arc of the Appalachia, but have since been removed. The Friends of the Serpent Mound, a non-profit organization whose members live near the mound, say the Mayan-related event was peaceful and respectful, and a rainbow even appeared over the Serpent after a brief sun shower. But Friends of the Serpent Mound (FOSM) admits it was the Unite the Collective event that literally left a scar on the Serpent, and they have promised if anyone desecrates the mound, even out of reverence, they will do everything in their power to have the perpetrators arrested and prosecuted by local authorities. Nevertheless, New Age fans of the Serpent told the Free Press they feel the Oklahoma Shawnee are “overreacting.” Several sources who volunteer for FOSM say it’s true that thousands of New Agers consider the Serpent a Mecca of sorts. But most “New Age” fans of the Serpent are not “card-carrying” New Agers, says FOSM, but right-sided, left-leaning “artistic types” whose life-lessons are influenced by Native American traditions, such as promoting peace and venerating nature. FOSM president Delsay Wilson, says, “A lot of people think Friends of the Serpent Mound is all about New Age but it’s not. We are not pushing a New Age agenda. We’re not New Age.” With that said, adds Wilson, New Agers and anyone else, for that matter, have every right to honor and even worship the mound as they wish as long as they don’t walk on the mound or desecrate the mound. These are the rules for one simple reason — the Serpent is a public space. “Everybody does what they feel they want to bring to it; it’s an awesome community,” she says about those who regularly attend the annual winter and summer solstice events. During the winter solstice celebration, says Wilson, more than 600 candles illuminated the outline of the Serpent and candles are placed in the center of the egg (or sun), as well. “A handful of people are picked to walk across the mound and it’s done in a respectful way. Word spread because we took pictures and it was gorgeous.” “I think when people come to these activities it’s not this bizarre, New Age activity,” she adds. “It’s a way of honoring the ancients and the site itself. There are Native Americans and New Agers who are together and stand together in their reverence of the mound.” Cincinnati resident and Serpent Mound historian Ross Hamilton is also a member of FOSM. He’s written several controversial books about the Serpent, includingThe Mystery of the Serpent Mound, which postulates the mound could be 5,000 years or older and that untold layers of mysteries are awaiting to solved. Hamilton’s books are sold at the Serpent’s on-site museum run by the Arc of Appalachia. The books are a point of contention with the Oklahoma Shawnee, who believe Hamilton has warped Native American mythology into a pseudo-science that is not genuine. Hamilton, who claims he is deeply respectful to Native American history, says no one can deny the power of the Serpent. “The Serpent Mound has amazing energy. It is the only site in Ohio that can make your arm hair stand on end under the right conditions,” he says. “Some people who spend time there have a catharsis. They cry and weep. People find that their prayers are answered. They have moments of clarity and enlightenment. There’s just a general feeling of elation, especially when the seasons change.” He adds, “A bug has been put in their ear that New Agers are digging into the earthworks with staffs that have crystals on the end and they’re wearing Native wear.” “If the Shawnee traditionalists would open their hearts and minds and understand that these New Agers love them and what their ancestors did, they might eventually be softened,” says Hamilton, who personally believes the Serpent is a centrally located “star lodge” surrounded by other “star mounds” in the Ohio Valley. Feels like Church If anything, the controversy brings attention to what is arguably Ohio’s greatest landmark, one that in the middle of last century attracted more than 100,000 tourists a year from all corners of the planet. Unfortunately, during the last 30 years or so the Serpent has registered just over 20,000 visitors annually, says FOSM. But the Serpent’s popularity may again be gaining traction: besides National Geographic’s recent recognition, the mound is a nominee for the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site. Brad Lepper is perhaps OHS’s most visible anthropologist as he writes a Sunday column on Ohio history for the Dispatch. As for why the Serpent was built, “I don’t think we can make a claim one way or the other.” It could have been for spiritual purposes or for agrarian reasons, or both, he says. “The fact that it could be used as a calendar doesn’t mean that was its primary purpose,” says Lepper, who has suggested the mound could be a shrine to the Native American spiritual power “Mishebeshu,” which means “The Great Serpent.” Nevertheless, he understands why some people, such as New Agers, have epiphany-like reactions when they visit the Serpent Mound. “I am taking my science hat off here, but I do feel the special power of that site,” he says. “It’s not any sort of energy that you could ever detect with any sort of energy meter, it’s just a special place. When I’m there, more so than any of the other Native American sites, I feel like I am in a church. It feels as if you should speak in hushed tones, that sort of thing.”

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