Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Citizens of Indigenous Ohio nations give fuller picture of state history

Wyandotte Citizen Caleb Garcia plays lacrosse on a bright green lawn with a visitor at the Fort Recovery Museum and Monument in Mercer County
Chris Welter
Wyandotte Citizen Caleb Garcia plays lacrosse with a visitor at the Fort Recovery Museum and Monument in Mercer County.

Indigenous people have lived in what we now call Ohio for more than fifteen thousand years. The United States governmentforced their communities out of the state in the 19th century, sending them and their governments to reservations in places like modern day Canada, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

But some organizations in the region are joining a growing movement to invite them back to educate Ohioans with a more complete history of our region.

This month around 20 people joined in on a Wyandotte social dance at the Fort Recovery Museum and Monument in Mercer County. Chris Houk, a lifeways researcher with the Wyandotte Nation, helped lead the dance as part of the programming for Fort Recovery’s first “Beyond the Battlefield” event.

“You need to understand this is the last place where we were free,” Houk said. “This is the last place we wanted to be.”

Historically, the museum’s tours have focused ontwo battles that took place there between tribal nations and the U.S. military.

But during the event, Miami, Shawnee, and Wyandotte citizens came to provide people with a fuller picture of their modern cultures and communities – their children’s stories, their art, their economic development initiatives – the types of things that go beyond a few violent hours from hundreds of years ago.

They played lacrosse with kids on the lawn, displayed colorful traditional textiles made from plants still found in the state today, and showed people crisp, computer generated images of what people living in the region two thousand years ago might have looked like.

Josh Garcia, a media specialist with the Wyandotte Nation, traveled from Oklahoma with Houk for the event. Now in his mid-twenties, Garcia started visiting his homelands when he was 10 years old. When he isn’t doing events like the one at Fort Recovery, he makes TikToks about topics like traditional eastern fletchings used by historic Ohio sovereign nations.

@joshigarc Traditional Eastern fletchings used by Wyandot(te), Shawnee, Lenape, Tsilagi, Anishinabe, Hudinosuane, and others. From what I was taught, this type of fletching doesn’t shows up anywhere else in the world. (Lmk if you know anything different!) #fyp #native #bowandarrow ♬ Nikes On - Healy

“Whenever you look at people groups on Google, we're the only people that will most likely pull up in black and white photos,” Garcia said, “So people still think we're living in the past, which is kind of a hard concept to deconstruct."

A growing movement

Talon Silverhorn, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and the cultural programs manager for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources helped organize the event.

“Ohio is full of native history and a lot of places have been interpreting that history without Native people for quite a long time,” Silverhorn said, “There is a growing trend now that is a direct result of the tribe's efforts to get more accurate representation that is now bearing fruit here in Ohio.”

George Ironstrack, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, a historian, and the assistant director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Oxford, said events like these are particularly significant in a state like Ohio that has zero federally recognized tribes within its borders today.

“Most Midwesterners at the private level, and then also at the governmental, political level, don't have a history of interacting with tribes as these vibrant political, cultural, social entities,” Ironstrack said.

The Ohio History Connection, which owns the Fort Recovery museum, is one of the organizations in the state working to amend that: they have hired staff who are citizens of historic Ohio tribes and developed policy to regulate who can interpret tribal history at the sites they own. Ironstrack said that makes a difference.

“The Ohio History Connection, formerly the Ohio Historical Society, has really revitalized, created new connections with sovereign political entities, tribal nations, especially those in Northeast Oklahoma, who have direct connections to what is today the state of Ohio in terms of our homelands,” he said.

Jared Nally, also a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and a research assistant in the Myaamia Center focusing on the revitalization of Myaamia textiles and cultural ecology, said at the event that he thinks Ohioans are starting to take notice of his tribe’s presence in the state.

“We might not be visible to all the citizens in Ohio, but we have a lot of collaborative relationships with state and local governments, a lot of connections with the museums, so I think we have a presence working in our homelands," Nally said.

A fuller history

Silverhorn, the ODNR employee who helped organize the event, grew up in northeastern Oklahoma and first visited Fort Recovery when he was a kid during an Eastern Shawnee Cultural Tour where hundreds of Shawnee people packed into buses to see sites in Ohio.

He said the history presented to them back then focused on war and painted Indigenous Ohioans with a broad brush, but he said that’s starting to change with events like the one at Fort Recovery.

“These places are trying to do things the right way and trying to represent people accurately,” Silverhorn said. “And more importantly, they are providing the space and the platform and resources for the people themselves to do it themselves.”

“You need to understand this is the last place where we were free. This is the last place we wanted to be.”
Chris Houk, a lifeways researcher with the Wyandotte Nation

Fort Recovery site manager Kim Rammel agreed. She said visitors have an appetite for more accurate history of the region presented by citizens of federally recognized sovereign nations.

“They want to know both sides,” Rammel said. “Every story has two sides and if you only hear one side, it makes you question, ‘What is the other perspective?’ There's always another perspective. It's not always comfortable. But so what? It's true.”

One of Silverhorn’s main projects with the ODNR is developing Ohio’s 76th state park outside of Xenia. It will be called Great Council and will include a Shawnee museum and interpretive center on the site of a former 18th century tribal village. The entire project has been designed with input from the three federally recognized Shawnee tribes that exist today. It’s set to open sometime next year.