College Green

Exploring environmental news in Southeast Ohio

Commentary: A Walk along the Great Hopewell Road

Posted by collegegreenou on November 6, 2009

By Joe Brehm

Following the Footsteps of the Ancients
On Oct. 10, about 30 people set out to do something that had not been done in hundreds of years. They began a 7-day, 70-mile walk from Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe to the Octagon Earthworks in Newark. This same pilgrimage was undertaken by the Hopewell people who built these earthen structures 2,000 years ago. Some archaeologists theorize that people may have come to the Octagon Earthworks from as far away as the Grand Canyon for ceremonial gatherings.

Brad Lepper, an archaeologist from Ohio State University, has argued that a road once existed from the Chillicothe Earthworks to the Octagon in Newark, which has been termed the Great Hopewell Road. A diverse group of students, hikers, community members and visitors from other states and countries walked the length of this road from Oct. 10-16. This weeklong journey, labeled “Walk with the Ancients,” was sponsored by OSU at Newark’s Earthworks Center. Walkers’ motives for this pilgrimage were varied. Some participants simply enjoyed walking and hiking and were curious. Others wanted to retrace the steps of their Native American ancestors. Vincent Stanzione, an anthropologist from Guatemala, joined the walk because of his expertise on pilgrimage. Emily Hadet, a senior at Denison University, is researching motivations behind pilgrimage and conducted interviews along the walk.

I had the privilege of joining them for a part of this pilgrimage, and I will never see Ohio’s landscape in the same way. The walk and its participants revealed a new dimension to lands that I travel through often. I have always admired the rolling hills and gentle landscape of southern and central Ohio — its diverse ecology and ephemeral beauty — but never realized that an ancient path of prayer was laid upon the land by those who dwelt here long ago.

Led by Ceremony
I decided to attend the opening ceremony after hearing about this event from Dr. Margaret Pearce, a professor in the Geography Department at Ohio University and Director of the Ohio University Cartographic Center. Dr. Pearce and graduate student Mike Boruta produced the map that guided walkers along their journey.

The deep, resonant beat of a traditional Native American drum sounded across the green fields covering 2,000-year-old earthworks in Chillicothe. A strong October breeze carried the smell of sage and sweetgrass smoke. Lakota spiritual leader Gilly Running and singers Mark Welsh, Hunter Garner and Andrew Baker led a procession of about 70 people to the middle of this cluster of mounds and earthworks. As the pulse of the drum and voices of singers rang out, the large circle of onlookers and walkers faced each of the four cardinal directions — north, east, south, and west — in unison.

The words of a Hunkpapa Lakota elder who had spoken moments earlier settled in my mind: “Most people think that the four colors of the medicine wheel (red, white, yellow and black) symbolize the red man, white man, etc., but that’s not the case. When that wheel starts spinning, the colors blend together, and what you get is brown. When you look around, we’re all just different shades of brown.”

After the ceremony, the walkers began their journey and I rejoined them at Rock’s Mill near Lancaster on their fourth day. After an evening program about the history and restoration of the mill, some of the walkers participated in a traditional sweat lodge ceremony. I sat by the fire as hot rocks were pulled from the coals of a large fire, glowing red in the darkness of the night. The sound of the rushing falls at the mill and the crackling of the fire blended with songs of prayer from the sweat lodge. Those walking along the Great Hopewell Road may have done the very same thing at this place two thousand years ago.

As I sat on the ground near the fire, my thoughts turned to a sweat lodge I participated in several years ago. Sitting in the hot darkness, I had waited for something extraordinary to happen to me, but my expectations were not met as the ceremony carried on. I realized then that the sweat lodge was not about me, it was about the good of all people. So I tried to catch on to the songs and add my voice to the collective prayers of everyone there. Looking back, it is clear that I ended up receiving much more than I gave.

The walkers reflected on their pilgrimage up to that point at a talking circle the next evening in Baltimore, Ohio. Walkers told powerful stories of sharing, getting to know fellow walkers, and walking along the same path as the Hopewell people long ago. The participants inspired me through their commitment to this walk, to each other and to the ancients. Even though I went about my usual routine in Athens — going to environmental studies classes, doing homework and bartending — my week did not feel normal. My thoughts were with those on the pilgrimage. They reminded me that there is much more to sustainability and environmental issues than an ecological footprint.

After some encouragement, I decided to put off my responsibilities for a day and walk with everyone on Thursday (Day 6). It was cold and raining, but the group was in amazingly high spirits. We walked 11 miles along roadsides through Baltimore and along remnants of the Erie canal en route to Buckeye Lake. We traveled past corn and soybean fields, forests, homes and horse pens and conversed with each other about our lives and motivations for making this pilgrimage. We stopped only twice in the light rain and cold wind — once to sing a traditional Lakota song together, and once to eat lunch. Both stops provided much needed nourishment.

As we approached Buckeye Lake, I occasionally had to step off the road and into the grass to avoid traffic. When I glanced down at the wet grass I saw the footprints of those who had traveled before me. I could not see or hear all of them, but I knew they had walked across the very ground that I now tread upon. We were connected by the path we walked. The same is true of the Hopewell people that walked this path long ago. At that moment, I felt connected not only to all the walkers on this trip, but also to everyone who had ever made the pilgrimage. As one of the elders pointed out, we are all human beings, all searching for the same thing. I think that is why many of the people made this pilgrimage — to connect to ancestors who were also trying to be the best human beings they could.

Mary Borgia, a teacher in Newark, wrote a song for “Walk with the Ancients,” and one verse in particular resonated after this experience:

I walk with mothers and with fathers
With my sisters and my brothers
Our sons and our daughters
Give us strength to carry on

Implications of Walk with the Ancients

I spoke with Carol Welsh, the executive director of the Native American Indian Center of Columbus, Ohio (NAICCO), about the importance of this event. She felt a sense of pride from the complex earthworks constructed by her ancestors, and also gladness that scientists are finally acknowledging the complexity and brilliance of the mound builders. She also saw this event as important in bringing awareness to Native American issues in local communities in Ohio and also across the U.S.

I believe that “Walk with the Ancients” certainly did bring awareness to local communities. The many local residents who attended evening events were curious and eager to learn about the walk, its participants and Indigenous culture. The hospitality that walkers received along the way also indicated that Welsh’s vision for this event was fulfilled. The churches, community centers and parks where the walkers stayed were very friendly, giving and eager to learn about this pilgrimage.

Everyone took something different from this experience. I learned from great people such as Running and Sandy Garner that sustainability is not just about the kind of car you drive or putting up solar panels. It is about ceremony, renewal and a long-term sense of place that can only be earned by fostering a relationship with the landscape over hundreds of generations. It is about taking the time to sit around a fire and think about our ancestors. It is about cultural sharing, and stepping outside of a western, scientific worldview. Finally, it’s about a love for fellow human beings and for the land. I am thankful for the opportunity to walk for a while with so many great people on such a meaningful journey.


One Response to “Commentary: A Walk along the Great Hopewell Road”

  1. thank you for the job, I really love this series!

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