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The Land of Legend, Teachings of My Cherokee Grandmother

"This is an article I wrote for the website of my friend Trudy Silverheels, Navajo artist and writer."

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The Native American tradition is one of preservation. We are many tribes and 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 these remembrances of the teachings of my Native American grandmother carry on some of the tales given to us from earlier times. This is our heritage. It is, in fact, the only thing we have left of a once-vast and diverse civilization, now all but gone.

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 reservations are in western North Carolina and eastern Oklahoma. I’ve visited the Oconaluftee Cherokee reservation in the Smoky Mountains 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 was 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 American. Although there are no tribes or reservations left in Ohio, there are many abandoned places here, where the indigenous inhabitants 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.

Few today who live in the area where I grew up are familiar with the term ‘Land of Legend.' The last vestiges of its usage are in the names of a local transit company and a driving school. Most inhabitants of this area are unaware of its rich but nearly lost history. It was once an important center of Native American life and culture before the Europeans came. I was born and raised in the 'Land of Legend,' and this is a small part of its story.

It has been so-named because it was rich in the history of the American Indian going back two millennia, but it is a name now lost in time to all but a few who are aware of what happened here. You will not find the name on a map, but for nearly two thousand years, it was a center of commerce and a sacred place of peace. The commodity that made this area so important to the Indian was Flint. Abundant natural outcroppings at Flint Ridge supplied the Native Americans with the sharp-edged mineral with which arrowheads, tools, and axes could be fashioned.

It was quarried from the flint-pits here, and traded throughout the mid-west by Indians of all tribes, going back to the Middle Woodland period, when great earthwork mounds were built as temples and effigies by the pre-historic tribes now known as the Hopewell and Adena civilizations. Today, the area is known as Licking County, Ohio, named for the Licking River, which meanders through it from west to east. The river is shallow and muddy now, like most rivers in the American Midwest, choked and silted-up by the agricultural run-off of modern farming, but the rivers and streams once ran clear and clean, surrounded by tall stands of virgin forests.

The largest forest of cherry trees ever to grow in the world once grew right here. Where this forest stood is now just a suburban neighborhood whose inhabitants have no idea why their main street is named Cherry Valley Road. This was part of the vast Northern Woodlands, where numerous tribes of the Algonquin and Iroquois-speaking civilizations thrived hundreds of years ago. It was said that a squirrel could jump from tree-to-tree from Lake Erie to the Ohio River without once needing to touch the ground.

There is still great beauty to be found where the river cuts through an ancient sandstone ridge near the little town of Toboso, named for the home of Cervantes' Lady Dulcinea. The state of Ohio has made several parks and nature reserves in Licking County, where the most important sites of Native American history are still preserved. The geological formation which runs through much of southern Ohio, forming the magnificently beautiful Hocking Hills Parks region, seventy-five miles to the south, is named for an ancient petroglyph, the Black Hand, which was discovered by early settlers two hundred years ago.

Left by the Indians, this ancient petroglyph once appeared upon the sandstone cliff-face of the Licking Narrows, where the river passes through an ancient rocky gorge left by the runoff of retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age. No one knows who exactly left the sooty-black petroglyph, carved high upon the rock above the Licking River, but it was said that one of its long fingers pointed the way to the nearby flint outcroppings south of the gorge, where the Indians quarried their most important natural resource for two thousand years and traded it throughout the region.

It started long ago. Just as ancient civilizations throughout the world have been defined by the commodities that made them thrive - bronze, iron, even stone; the early Native American civilization that once flourished here was based on flint. The ancient Mound-builders discovered natural outcroppings of this useful mineral along a ridge that 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 arrowheads, 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, when struggling over natural resources. 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 Colorado 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, pipe-stone, seashells, bear and sharks teeth, and other rare commodities.

The custom of raising enormous earthen mounds began with the Adena culture, which preceded the Hopewell Tradition, but it 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 was 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.

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 two thousand 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 that 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.

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 to form the gorge, could be seen a prehistoric 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 high 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, in desperation, 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 since my grandmother began telling me who I am, and what I am. 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 these tribal gatherings 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 narrow gorge over a century ago, and a tunnel was dynamited beneath Council Rock in 1903 for a track-bed. The Black Hand petroglyph itself was destroyed in 1828 when the Ohio & Erie Canal builders used gunpowder to blow away the face of the cliff where the hand was visible.

An artifact of Native history was destroyed without a thought, to make way for a tow-path for the early canal boats that were routed through the gorge between 1835 and 1861 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 memories.

(c) 2015 ~ Bethany Ariel Frasier

Written by LaJumelleMauvaise
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