Friday, March 2, 2012

Trading Post. The term evokes the notion of a simpler time, of commerce on the frontier - the barter of local products for supplies traditionally. Here the commerce is in ideas, art, literature, and experiences. We trade our knowledge and our craft. The Native American tradition is one of preservation. We are many tribes, many clans, but our stories carry on our history. Some have been nearly lost and forgotten as the young look to the future and forget the past. But here we remember and carry on the tales given to us from earlier times. That is our heritage. It is in fact the only thing we have left of a once-vast and diverse civilization.

Where I live there are no Indian reservations. The Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio which hosts our annual pow-wows is made up of members of numerous tribes which have reservations and enclaves in other parts of the country, some very far away. My Cherokee tribal reservation is in North Carolina. I've visited there many times, but here in Ohio Natives are dispersed thinly throughout the population and when we come together from different tribes we bring traditions and customs carried on more through our families than by immersion in tribal reservation life. My maternal grandmother is nearly full-blooded Cherokee and she has been the source of my interest in my tribal roots even though I am less than half Native. Although there are no tribes or reservations left in Ohio, there are many abandoned places where the Native Americans left their mark, and they are vast and awe-inspiring. The most impressive of these were in the valley of the Licking River where I grew up, also known as the Land of Legend.

The Land of Legend... a sanctuary of peace.

When I first saw the great Indian mounds of Licking County as a little girl I was completely mystified. They didn't fit into the world I knew at all! They stand alone in their mysterious grandeur as they have stood for over 2,000 years, vestiges from a vanished civilization in the distant past surrounded now by the ugly clutter of modern civilization. They are amazing earthworks built in geometric shapes and animal effigies which fill central and southern Ohio. I wondered why they were there. Who built them, and when? These were exactly the questions my grandmother knew would be filling my mind when she took me to see them, for they were the same questions everyone asked upon seeing them for the first time. She took me into the museum at the Great Circle Mound State Park where I discovered some of the answers, and began to learn about why the area where I live was once called the Land of Legend.

It started long ago. Just as ancient civilizations throughout the world have been defined by the commodities which made them thrive... bronze, iron, even stone, the early Native American civilization that once fluorished here was based on flint. The ancient Mound-builders discovered natural outcroppings of this useful mineral along a ridge which today runs up the eastern edge of Licking County and for centuries the flint-pits were quarried by Native tribes throughout the region. At first the flint which was used to fashion arrow-heads, knives and axes, all the necessary tools of survival in the woodlands created warfare among the various tribes, each of whom fought to control access to the precious resource. But then these 'primitive' tribes did something remarkable which even modern nations today rarely seem capable of doing. They made peace! How it was actually achieved we can only conjecture, but the Indians crafted a legend out of the event and the legend transformed this small area of the country into a sacred sanctuary where conflict was prohibited and no man could raise his hand against another. The legend tells that the chiefs of all the tribes in the area were called to a great council upon the rocks high above a gorge on the Licking River near the flint quarries. Gathered upon this high promontory the chiefs sat in a circle and were told by the Great Father that warfare was forbidden in the lands around the flint-quarries and tragedy would befall any man who broke the peace. The treaty of Council Rock remained unbroken and the legend kept the peace for centuries turning this area into a center of trade which carried flint along rivers and trails around pre-Columbian North America for a thousand miles in every direction. Flint whose geological origins can be traced to the Land of Legend has been discovered as far away as the Mississippi and the east coast.

With peace and commerce came civilization. Two thousand years ago in what has come to be called the Middle Woodland Period, this sanctuary of non-violence became one of the most important ceremonial centers for the tribes of the Hopewell Tradition. This was a period in Native American history when trade in exotic materials from around the country enabled a widespread culture of artistic expression in beautiful crafts created from mica, copper, pipestone, seashells, bear and sharks-teeth, and other rare commodities. The custom of raising enormous mounds which began with the Adena culture which preceded the Hopewell Tradition was expanded and ceremonial mound-groups were built as astronomical and calendrical devices charting and predicting the points on the horizon where the moon would rise and set in each season. Mounds were built in the effigies of eagles, serpents, and flying squirrels for burials as well as ceremonial enclosures for tribal gatherings. The mound-groups were not cities, but rather holy places where all the local Indian villages gathered for special ceremonies. The Newark Earthworks in the center of the Land of Legend are some of the most extensive mound-groups in the world and are now under consideration as world-heritage sites by the UN, along with the Great Pyramids and the Great Wall of China. When the white man came into this region many of the mounds were destroyed when the forests were cut down and the land leveled to make way for agriculture. The Octagon mound group in the heart of the city of Newark is now a private golf course and access is restricted to members only. The historical and cultural importance of the great mounds were dismissed by the white settlers and cities were built up around them destroying many of them for home-sites. Only a few remain intact where once they dotted the landscape of the midwest woodlands before the westward expansion devastated the Native American culture in the nineteenth century.

The Legend of the Black Hand

Besides the great mounds and flint quarries Licking County is also home to another Indian legend closer to my heart, the Black Hand Petroglyph. When white settlers came to this area they found the Licking Narrows Gorge, now called the Black Hand Gorge. High up above the river on the walls of sandstone cliffs rising up to form the gorge could be seen a pre-historic petroglyph, an ancient image engraved in the rock. It was a large black hand. No one knew who had made it or how they had suspended themselves halfway up a sheer rock cliff-face to engrave it, but the local Indians who had not yet been driven from the area told various stories, that it was a warning reminding all who entered the area that no bloodshed was allowed beyond that point. Other tales said it was a pointer to the flint ridge to the south. But the story I like best is the legend of Ahyoma, the Princess of the Woodland Tribes.

The great chief Pawcongah sired a beautiful daughter named Ahyoma whose hand all the braves in the tribe sought in marriage. The comely Indian maiden secretly loved a young warrior named Lahkopis, but the Princess was such a lovely prize that her father decided to let the braves contest each other for the right to marry her. The brave who proved himself the mightiest warrior would then take her as his wife. The chief let it be known that the contest would be decided by the number of enemy scalps each brave brought back from battle and placed before him. Each warrior set out through the woods on hunting parties to take enough scalps to win the hand of the chief's daughter and when they returned they laid out their trophies one by one before the feet of the great chief. Lahkopis believed he had collected the most scalps but an older warrior named Waconsta came forward and laid out an even greater number. The chief declared him the winner saying he could take his daughter in marriage the very next day. Heartbroken, the young Princess came to Lahkopis in the night before her wedding and they ran off together through the woodlands hoping to escape to the sanctuary of Flint Ridge where no one would dare raise a hand against them. Waconsta guessed their plan however and followed them through the darkness until he caught up to the fleeing lovers at the river gorge where the Great Father had proclaimed the Flint Ridge area to be sacred ground. They climbed to the top of Council Rock where their escape was cut off by the cliffs over the river gorge. Unable to flee any farther Lahkopis drew his hatchet and resolved to face the mightier Waconsta in battle. When the moment came Waconsta raised his hand to strike the death blow to the young brave who had stolen his prize, but Lahkopis swung his hatchet upwards cutting off the hand of his rival. So near to the edge of the escarpment were the three that in the struggle the Princess stumbled and fell into the gorge far below as did her lover as he reached out to catch her, and his wounded rival also. The severed hand however never reached the river below and became a blackened image upon the side of the cliff. The black hand grew in size and was etched into the sandstone high above the river to serve as a warning to all others who entered the narrows never again to shed blood in the Land of Legend, the sanctuary of peace. For generations after, the Licking Narrows came to be called the Black Hand Gorge, still haunted by the spirits of the two jealous warriors and the Princess of the Woodland Tribes.

These are the stories I have been fascinated with all my life. The Land of Legend has always been a special place for Native Americans of all tribes having been a center of tribal activity for two millennia. The Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio often selects sacred sites here to host their annual pow-wows so they have often been held near my home and my grandmother and I were very active at the pow-wows when I was a teenager. The Black Hand Gorge has been one of my favorite haunts since I was very young. It was designated a state nature preserve in 1975 and a bikeway was paved on an old railway bed closely paralleling the river and it is a beautiful ride! The Council Rock promontory where so much Native legend is centered is still there although it has been heavily impacted by modern man. Two railways and an interurban track were routed through the gorge over a century ago, and a tunnel was dynamited beneath Council Rock for a track-bed. The Black Hand petroglyph was destroyed in 1828 when the Ohio & Erie Canal builders used gun-powder to blow away the face of the cliff where the hand was visible to make way for a tow-path for the canal-boats which were routed through the gorge between 1835 and 1900 to carry agricultural products to market. There is also an abandoned canal-lock at the outlet of the river-narrows and an abandoned sand-quarry where my friends and I used to skinny-dip. In college I worked as a model and in the years since I have used the beauty of the Gorge as a backdrop for many of my photo-shoots. It is still a remote location and only on the south side of the river where the bike-trail runs do visitors frequent the gorge. It is a place of beauty and of memories.