The whirring sound of saws filled the air, but underneath, one could hear the beating of a drum.
Minimum-security offenders from the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility were cutting wood Sunday afternoon, deep along the backroads of rural Fairbanks where the Sullivan County American Indian Council Inc. has established a heritage site now referred to as Waapaahsiki Siipiiwi.
Hugh Oxendine, a member of the council and of Lumbee Indian ancestry himself, was out helping clear the wooded site, excited about future developments there which include a museum, council headquarters and youth campgrounds. The group hopes to have those up and ready by next spring.
“There’s a lot of really neat things happening out here,” he said near the mulched trails leading toward an ancient mound.
Last April, archaeologists from Indiana University visited the mound in conjunction with the council, performing a dig at the site now believed to have been a Kickapoo Indian burial ground in use 1,500 years ago. Oxendine said the archaeological team found nearly 600 artifacts while there last year.
A storied past
Sen. John Waterman (R-Shelburn) walked through the woods wearing bibbed overalls Sunday, as he has since the project got under way 11⁄2 years ago. Of European ancestry himself, Waterman said similarities between the spiritual traditions of Native Americans and Christians seem quite apparent to him.
In fact, during the tenure of President Thomas Jefferson, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned to find evidence linking Native Americans to the “Lost Tribe of Israel,” he noted. Today, some evidence suggests a DNA link between Hebrews and Native Americans, he said, expressing his appreciation for the stories and lore of both.
Among the artifacts discovered at the site were a Colt revolver from 1860, deer antlers with carvings, and pottery which carbon-dated back 1,500 years. It’s believed the Kickapoo Indians built the mound for ceremonial purposes, and other groups have used it since.
“Long before Terre Haute was even a dream in someone’s head,” he said.
In homage to those traditions, the 10-acre site is being worked into a historical park. Entering the camp site from the road, one approaches a hand-made overpass leading to the mound. The trail is covered with woodchips, lined by railroad ties donated by Indiana Rail Road. And along the path, beneath a canopy of trees, the “7 Grandfather Teachings” are carved into signs: truth, humility, honesty, bravery, respect, love and wisdom.
But it isn’t until one gets to the giant mound that becomes visible the “Medicine Wheel” built by council volunteers and inmates from the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. The circle, 70 feet in diameter, contains a cross dividing it into four equal parts.
“It’s basically a spiritual instrument to guide their lives,” Waterman said, explaining the symbolism of seasons, elements and faith. “These old medicine people are very interesting people.”
Ceremonies have been conducted there recently and more are planned, he said. During “the grandfather drum” ceremony, the vibrations of hundreds of drums lining the circle draws the attention of eagles, he noted.
“There were three eagles the last time we did it,” he said.
Working on the grounds provides him a sense of calm he finds comparable to that of leaving church. Similarities abound between Judeo-Christian traditions and those of the Native Americans, he said.
Oxendine said his Lumbee ancestry comes from his father’s side of the family, stretching back to North Carolina. Today, about 35,000 people belong to that tribe, he said. The owner of Cherokee Development Builders in Terre Haute has helped access equipment for the work being done at the site.
“I’m kind of new to the group,” he said, explaining he’s been active less than two years. “I’m an infant in learning about my ancestry.”
A legacy of labor
As a state senator, Waterman carried the Native American Commission bill through the Indiana legislature, a feat he recalled taking three years to achieve. Now defunct from “political issues,” he said it still exists at the state level and could prove valuable is properly used. To access health care per federal guidelines, members of Native American tribes must return to their reservation, he said, adding some 60,000 tribe members reside in Indiana. With a functioning Native American Commission, those individuals could establish health care facilities or programs here in Indiana, keeping those dollars local, he explained.
In addition to money and jobs, history too is at stake.
“Indiana means ‘Land of the Indians’,” he said, pointing out the educational benefits of working to maintain that legacy.
And for the last year-and-a-half, substantial work has been under way.
The property was a thick tangle of woods last April as archaeologists dug into the mound. But with the help of inmates from the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, more than 500 trees have been cleared, trails blazed, rails built and gates erected. Resulting firewood has been donated to area families in need.
“It’s all volunteers and donations. Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Waterman said. “If it wasn’t for the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Facility personnel Jacquie Mize and Jeff Hancock had eight inmates out Sunday, wearing safety equipment as they mowed, chopped and raked. With six to 10 inmates each weekend since last April, Hancock said the total work hours donated adds up to 19,968.
“They’ve cleared this woods by hand,” he said. Shovels, rakes and axes were the primary tools of choice as men loaded dirt in wheelbarrows and rolled it away. “They really enjoy the hospitality of the people coming out here,” he said.
The beat goes on
Council member Susan Petoskey said funds raised at the ninth annual Pow Wow in Shakamak State Park will go toward Waapaahsiki Siipiiwi.
The site’s name comes from the Miami Indians’ spelling of what locals now call the “Wabash River,” she said, explaining the substitution of “p” for “b” revolves around pronunciation.
Waterman said the annual powwow regularly draws more than 3,500 people into the state park. Aside from gate fees there, the event is free to the public and is scheduled for Sept. 15-16.
Petoskey noted that the Sullivan County American Indiana Council Inc. is a 501(c)(3) organization and donations are tax deductible.
While considerable progress has been made since last April, the group still has more work to do and hopes to have the museum and educational programming up by next April. In addition to 15 Native American vendors and visitors from the tri-state area, a family of Aztec heritage will perform “fire dancing.”
“It’s just a wonderful family event,” she said.
The council has leased the property now known as Waapaahsiki Siipiiwi from Indiana-American Power since November 2007 and recently signed an extension good through 2022, she said, meaning future generations will be able to share in the culture of those long past.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.