Our souls, to truly thrive, need whole, intact landscapes, even sacredscapes, lands that are revered and ceremonially marked as sacred. On this Indigenous People’s Day I want to honor an aspect of our First People’s heritage — the earth-based spirituality of the ancestors of midwestern Native Americans who created immense, spiritually charged landscapes filled with earth-sculpted animals called effigy mounds and ceremonial enclosures called earthworks. In this story I will touch briefly on earthworks but focus primarily on the effigy mounds.
Perhaps because I grew up on an island with a limitless view of ocean, sky, and beach I saw the whole vast vista as sacred — God, Spirit, infusing it all. Leaving home, I loved to explore the beauty and special character of the larger terrain wherever I lived. But these were basically lonely pursuits. As far as I could tell, no one else viewed the land, whether the confluence of roiling rivers in Pennsylvania or the cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean in California, as holy. It wasn’t until we began travelling to Ireland that I started to learn about ancient people who saw their land as sacred and marked it reverently, denoted it as sacred space through their creativity. At one ancient stone circle after another we experienced the power of a circular ceremonial enclosure purposely consecrated by being set within a uniquely compelling landscape. Humanly created circles placed in divinely endowed landscapes, each mutually empowering the other.
Many of these 1,000BC stone circles have been preserved in the south of Ireland, along with even older stone passage mounds, ceremonial enclosures, and rock art. These stone circles are not only one with the land, they are also situated within the cosmos. Virtually all have altar-like recumbent stones facing southwest, the direction of death and rebirth, and many are oriented specifically to the solstice or equinox sunrises or sunsets. In my ignorance I didn’t realize that ancestral Native Americans here at home had engaged in similar landscape-scale reverencing. A few years ago I became interested in the huge flat-topped earthen platform or temple mounds, built over the course of 4,000 years by the mound-building cultures east of the Mississippi, when we visited Cahokia near St. Louis, and later when we went to see several temple mounds of the ancestors of the Cherokee in North Carolina, but that’s a whole other story. In the past I had seen some drawings of Native American effigy mounds, but I had never even heard of earthworks.
Last August I was bitten by a poisonous copperhead snake, which was quite a transformative experience. So, this summer when we went north to visit my husband’s Ojibwe relatives in Wisconsin, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Serpent Mound in Ohio to pay homage to and make peace with Snake. The Serpent Mound, created around 1,000AD, is held sacred by many contemporary Native Americans. We arrived before the park opened and had the place to ourselves. In the profound green quiet and slanting radiance of the morning sun we made our offerings and began our slow approach.
The Serpent is a 1,350 foot long earthen effigy figure representing the Great Serpent, Guardian of the World Below, the watery realm of lakes and rivers under the earth. Arising from the underwater/underworld realm, the Serpent undulates along the flat plateau of a high bluff, bordered by snakelike meandering creeks below. The curve of the snake fits the curve of the land as the land shapes the body of the snake, one sanctifying the other. My body experienced the serpent’s subtle body as the tangible presence of the animated energies of water and earth in the never-ending process of fertility awakening, unwinding, creating. Tail still tightly coiled in a sunwise triple-spiral, the serpent holds an egg in its mouth. The sinuous curves felt like the continuous movement of life itself from birth to death to rebirth.
The head of the Serpent faces the summer solstice sunset. Our visit being only two weeks after the solstice, I stood at the snake’s head, at the head of the cliff where the waters meet, in the sunlight, feeling the snake spirit directing me how to sing and pray. I moved within the timeless cycling of the sun, other curves of its body pointing toward the sunrises of winter solstice and the spring and fall equinoxes. (Perhaps stimulated by this ritual contact with serpent energies, shortly after our return home I had a significant dream of a newly awakened flow of psycho-physical energy.)
At the visitors center we learned that there had been ten thousand Native burial mounds and earthworks throughout the Ohio Valley region and, unbelievably, less than five percent of these still remain. In this area there is one other effigy, Alligator Mound, actually an “underwater panther,” a powerful mythological water-spirit of many Native American peoples. It is located on the top of a bluff overlooking the Raccoon Creek Valley.
Continuing north into southeastern Wisconsin, we visited Lizard Mound County Park where a mile-long circular trail winds through earthen effigy figures of birds with widely outstretched wings, a lizard-like water spirit, and many long-tailed, supernatural animals called “underwater panthers,” creatures part cat, part serpent. These are spirits of the three realms of the layered cosmos, upper/sky, middle/earth and lower/water. Sometimes the realms are seen as two worlds, the Above and the Below: sky above, earth and waters below. The Lizard Mound figures are interspersed with very long, tapering linear mounds that are thought to be snakes, underwater spirits, as well. The effigy area is surrounded by springs and wetlands. Besides being sources of life, springs are often revered by Native people as entrances to the world below and as pathways for the spirits to travel between the lower and upper worlds. A park sign informed us, “Mound building was part of a ceremonial ritual meant to unify the spiritual and physical worlds and bring them into balance and harmony.”
Walking the trail in this savanna environment we were accompanied by several species of butterflies, including, happily, many monarchs, who were fluttering among the colorful summer wildflowers.
After visiting with our Ojibwe relatives in northern Wisconsin and attending their Honor the Earth Powwow, we stopped on our way home to visit a cousin’s family in southwest Wisconsin. When we mentioned our interest in effigy mounds they told us that, synchronistically, one of the best preserved effigy mound clusters in the state was nearby. So, we went in search of the Shadewald Mounds, otherwise affectionately known as Frank’s Hill in recognition of the man, Frank Shadewald, who saved them and virtually wrote the book on how to properly preserve them. These mounds are part of what was once a giant ceremonial effigy mound landscape, now mostly destroyed.
We climbed up a high hill and found ourselves walking along beside large, round wildflower-covered shapes. These are a row of twelve conical mounds, following the contours of the hilltop in an almost perfect linear formation, all evenly spaced, in a roughly north/south direction. Frank Shadewald observed that these mounds appear to track the setting sun from May 1st to the summer solstice and back again to around September 1st. This is the approximate time frame within which to plant and harvest corn at that latitude. They also form a calendar of other celestial events like summer solstice, the longest day of sunlight of the year.
To the east we could see that on the top of the next hill were the effigy figures, a row of enormous animal effigies including a bird (perhaps eagle or thunderbird), a bear, and a coyote-like canine, also following the contours of the hilltop. Climbing the second hill we walked around great outspread wings, a massive head and body, but we couldn’t even begin to grasp their full shapes, they were so huge. We wondered at the mystery of what it meant that these animal spirits were ritually created with soil by people standing on the top of the earth and perhaps dancing around them, but they could only be seen by the sky spirits themselves.
Wisconsin has been described as “the sculpted land.” Because of the especially dense concentration of tens of thousands of effigy mounds in the area, southern Wisconsin is considered to be the center of what is called the “effigy mound culture.” Created from 600 to 1200AD, they are the only raised-earth figurative formations in the world. A small percentage of these mounds remain, which are now protected. The people who made these effigies are thought to be the ancestors of the Ho Chunk (Winnebago), Dakota Sioux, and other related tribes. Their stories and legends describe these effigy mounds as sacred sites at which medicine people led ceremonies to secure the ongoing re-creation, rebirth and renewal of the communities of people and the earth. Most of the animal effigies include burials of revered ancestors in the animals’ heart or head area. These are the spirit beings and ancestor spirits of the various animal-symbolized clans interacting with the people in an ever- living landscape. All the animal figures are artfully placed on the land so that they are animated by the flow of the contours of the natural topography. Birds fly up and down slopes, animals range across ridge tops, and water creatures crawl to and from lakes and springs, portals to the watery underworld entered by water spirits, shamans, and the spirits of the ancestors.
We learned that in watery eastern Wisconsin, where lakes, swamps, marshes, and springs are plentiful, the long-tailed water-spirit creatures of the lower world abound, while in southwestern Wisconsin, with its un-glaciated high hills, cliffs and bluffs, upper world birds and earth world bears predominate. Across the middle, the animal congregations are mixed. But whether creatures of the Above or of the Below are more prevalent, they are almost always balanced by the presence of creatures of the other realm. We had unwittingly happened to visit both eastern and western configurations.
Now that we mortals can look down from the sky, we see more and more effigies being revealed by the new earth-imaging technology of LiDAR. Seeing those ghostly images of animals ranging along ridgetops and guarding the entrances of river valleys, while great flying birds surround former villages, we witness a sacredscape in which the people lived their lives completely embraced by the spirits of earth, water, and sky. I can barely imagine such a sense of belonging to earth and universe.
Passing back through southern Ohio we hoped to round out this exploration of human creativity in concert with the landscape by stopping to see some of the earthworks of the earlier Hopewell culture. These are ritual enclosures for ceremony and dancing constructed of low walls of earth and stone in various geometric shapes, many on the flat bluffs above river gorges, these shaped by the shape of the land itself. The Hopewells shared with the later effigy mound builders the same iconography of birds and animals of the layered cosmos, including those water-spirits called underwater panthers. Of some 600 of these earthworks, only about three dozen remain. Many of the extant earthworks are preserved by a wonderful organization called the Arc of Appalachia that conserves both endangered lands and endangered constructed landscapes. But we ran out of time and will have to return and write about them on another trip. Meanwhile here is a photo of Junction Earthworks preserved by the Arc of Appalachia and a plan of Pollock Works.
In my previous post on sacred animals, called Turtle Teachings, I invited readers to relate stories of animal encounters significant to them. A friend, Diantha Rau, sent a story called Racoon of Forgiveness. It turns out that her raccoon encounter took place when Diantha was a naturalist, ranger, and educator at Indian Mound Reserve in southwestern Ohio. On one side of Massies Creek canyon there is an ancient burial mound. And on a high bluff on the other side, a Hopewell earthwork now called Pollock Works. It consists of a series of earthen embankments ranging from three to ten feet in height that enclose a large 120-acre plateau. Current analysis sees the site as more ceremonial than defensive. I will end with Diantha’s lovely story:
Racoon of Forgiveness
By Diantha Rau
In about 1980, when I was working as a Naturalist/Ranger in the Greene County, Ohio park system, the most abundant park in my care, and my favorite, was Indian Mound Reserve. The beautiful Massies Creek runs through it creating rock formations and multiple habitats for animals and plants. The field around the ‘Indian Mound,’ for which the park was named, was a favorite meditation area for me, and the mound itself was difficult to protect from cyclists and others who found it to be a fun hill, rather than a sacred spot.
Indian Mound Reserve also embraced a high plateau, wild with native plants, overlooking a deep and long valley below. These were Native American grounds known only as ‘The Fort Enclosure,’ protected on all sides by cliffs and on the other by mounded entry points. No one in the park system knew its actual history and local Native tribes were not friendly to curious Caucasians, I discovered, even though I thought educating the public might be a good idea for protecting the area. So I just continued to educate the public myself, as best I could, both as a ‘law enforcement’ officer and as a naturalist leading hikes.
But I had no authority over use of the reserve by a Wright State University archeology department who wanted to do a dig at the base of the enclosure. It hurt my heart but there was nothing I could do but pray for the grounds, the species there, and the ancestors of this beautiful place.
The dig took place in a fairly remote area of the park at the base of the enclosure where humans seldom trod, and a raccoon began ‘annoying’ the archeologists. It was spring. Could it be the raccoon was protecting its home and its family from intruders? I was called to the site to investigate and spoke to the men there who claimed the raccoon was harassing them. I didn’t say aloud, “Who is harassing whom, here?!” but I did ask about the animal’s behavior and offered a possibility that their work and presence were disturbing the animal’s home. They had not thought of that. Understandable. We are not taught these things.
It was daylight of course, and the raccoon was looking down on us from high up in a nearby tree. It looked scared to death, from my perspective. Nevertheless, protocol dictated that I call the county’s Game Protector to come out. I knew what this meant. My uniform did not include a gun but his did, and he would most likely shoot the raccoon so work on the dig could continue, undisturbed. When he arrived we talked for a while but in the end he did shoot the raccoon down from the tree. The head would be sent to the lab for analysis to see if the animal was rabid.
I didn’t have immediate access to the eventual lab report and I didn’t press the issue, but I carried guilt for that raccoon’s death. It was not acting rabid to me. I went over it in my mind thinking of all the things I could have done first: given the situation more time, cleared the men out for a while to observe the raccoon’s behavior myself, called another naturalist, looked for raccoon babies in the area, which would explain a lot. Reunite them, and move them. I was angry at the callousness of humans and our abuse of power over other species.
Eventually, my guilt over the incident receded from my awareness but it never went away. Not until, one day, as I was walking along a heavily wooded nature trail nearer my home, I remembered that raccoon and felt a stab in my heart. Seconds later, I looked up to see a shaft of bright yellow light shining directly onto the trail through the thick canopy. Smack in the middle of that light sat a raccoon, up on hind legs, staring at me. And it just kept staring. My eyes teared up and I swear it smiled. I swear it did, so I smiled back. It thanked me for caring so much and told me its species was doing just fine. I was forgiven.
Many years later, I was privileged to offer teachings about relationships with nature and her animals. I encouraged people to deeply experience what was inside of them, as well as what was outside, and to find meaningful relationships that way, through synchronicity and felt senses — rather than simply looking up animal symbolism in books, which was popular at the time. Books and teachings by others are valuable resources and we desperately need them, but real relationships with our non-human relatives are also desperately needed in these times. I have since been bothered by raccoons while camping and annoyed by them in my trash but, for me, a raccoon is always about forgiveness.
- “Great Beasts of Legend: Underwater Panthers”, an informative video lecture by Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Weingarten Assistant Curator, American Section, Penn Museum on Underwater Panthers.
- The Indian Mounds of Wisconsin by Robert A. Birmingham and Amy L. Rosebrough.
- Effigy Mounds Initiative, a very active Facebook group.
- Wonderful video lecture on “New Perspective on Wisconsin’s Monumental Earthworks ” with LiDAR images of mound-filled landscapes.
- Arc of Appalachia