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A Shawnee Chief’s take on renaming the Wayne National Forest

A brown Forest Service sign announces the Ring Mill Campground in the Wayne National Forest. Behind the sign, a forest of trees are losing leaves in the fall and a muddy service road runs past an old brick building.
U.S. Forest Service — Wayne National Forest Facebook
The U.S. Forest Service is proposing renaming the Wayne National Forest to Buckeye National Forest, per the request of several indigenous nations.

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing renaming the Wayne National Forest to Buckeye National Forest.

The move comes at the request of nearly a dozen indigenous nations, including Delaware Nation, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Osage Nation and the Shawnee Tribe.

They say the forest’s namesake, General Anthony Wayne, violently removed indigenous people from their Ohio homelands.

The proposal has drawn criticism from some politicians, including Senator J.D. Vance who claims it’s a federal effort to remove the forest’s “historically significant” name.

“It would greatly benefit Ohioans and all Americans if our government could be counted on to defend our Founding Fathers, instead of capitulating to politically motivated renaming efforts,” he wrote in a letter to Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe says the founding fathers of the United States include people with names like Tecumsuh and Sitting Bull.

He joined the Ohio Newsroom’s Erin Gottsacker to talk about why the effort to rename the national forest matters.

A light green tent set up under towering pine trees and beside a glassy lake
Kyle Brooks
U.S. Forest Service — Wayne National Forest Facebook
The Wayne National Forest is Ohio's only national forest. It encompasses more than 160,000 acres in Southeast Ohio.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On the Shawnee Tribe’s involvement with renaming efforts

“We've been involved with the United States Forest Service ever since the creation of the United States Forest Service. We have formal consultations between our government and the United States government. And one of our best federal partners, at least for the Shawnee Tribe, has always been Region 9 of the United States Forest Service. That includes Monongahela in West Virginia, the Hoosier in Indiana, Mark Twain in Missouri, and of course, the Wayne National Forest in Ohio.”

On the importance of a name

This initiative, I think, begins with the [Department of the] Interior. Deb Haaland, [the Interior Secretary], recognizes the importance of names and the way things are named. Many other tribes have made these efforts over the years.”

“In regards to Anthony Wayne, even in his own time, he faced criticism from his own peers for being over-the-top in his murderous zealotry trying to rid the Ohio of indigenous people. Modern Ohio includes people of a great diversity, and it should represent all Ohioans, not just a town burner, destroyer of communities, and a murderer of women and children.”

"Whenever we celebrate a hero of that era — the guy who butchered women and children and Native villagers — we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we celebrating a wrongheaded idea?’”
Ben Barnes, Chief of the Shawnee Tribe

On the new name

“I think the National Forest Service and folks in the current administration like the name Buckeye National Forest, which I think is wonderful. Having grown up in southern Ohio, in Dayton in the seventies, I'm a huge, huge fan of the Cincinnati Bearcats, Cincinnati Reds, the Bengals. So I love Southern Ohio and I think renaming this forest is a wonderful idea.”

On opposition to the name change

“You don't see the Shawnee Tribe or other tribal nations out there with pitchforks and torches screaming for name changes. I think communities recognize that there may have been some wrongheaded ideas and ill-informed errors in our nation in our nation's past. Those ill-informed notions were denying women the right to vote, those ill-informed notions were the practice of slavery, those ill-informed notions were deporting and depopulating the United States Native Americans. So whenever we celebrate a hero of that era, the guy who butchered women and children and Native villagers, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we celebrating a wrongheaded idea?’”

On the tribe’s relationship with Ohio

“We're really excited about our participation in Ohio. We've seen Ohio make some great strides in recent years, especially with the Newark earthworks that are going to be inscribed into a World Heritage site. That would have never happened without tribal nations coming together with the state of Ohio. Currently, Governor DeWine and the Shawnee tribes are working to open up a new museum in Xenia, Ohio. So, these partnerships are important.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.