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.”