Misconceptions and truths about Ohio’s first residents

Cleveland is home to the contentious sports team the Cleveland Indians. 

Over time, opposition swelled to the team’s name and its mascot, Chief Wahoo. The racist caricature is the result of a larger lack of understanding about the history and significance of Ohio’s Native Americans.

A big misconception surrounding the history of Native Americans in Ohio is how long indigenous populations lived in the area, said Brian Redmond, a curator and archaeologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

“Most people I ask think it’s around 200 years,” he said.

How long have indigenous populations really been in Ohio? 13,000 years

Early on, most groups were family based and lived in places temporarily. These groups relied mostly on hunting as the climate shifted to one more comparable with modern-day, and likely lived in movable tents. 

One of the first widespread examples of Native presence, and misunderstanding, in Ohio is Hopewell. Many believe that Hopewell, which is famous for mound-building, were a people. Instead, Hopewell was a culture that spread throughout the region from 100 B.C. to 400 A.D. Evidence of Hopewell culture, like ceremonial mounds and bladelets, can be found in the Cuyahoga River valley, as well as along rivers from Florida to Canada. Unlike popular depictions of early Native Americans, Hopewell culture was sophisticated and intricate. Redmond hypothesizes the Hopewell tradition was a religious movement, possibly initiated by a few charismatic leaders. There were also extensive trade networks along the rivers, he said.

Around 1650, suddenly there is evidence that no humans lived in the region. Some theories as to the causes of this include disease, migration and the beaver wars. Native Americans returned to the region around 1750, and were mostly displaced by groups from other states. 

What followed was an unfortunate series of events, during which many Native Americans in Ohio were murdered, displaced or victims of disease. The result? A minuscule present-day Native American population, no federally recognized reservations and a general misunderstanding of indigenous history in Ohio.

Native American groups in the Cleveland area have very little commonality now. There is not a common people or culture, said Redmond. Instead, new systems of support and cultural exchange emerge, like the Cleveland American Indian Movement.

All of these factors, from controversial sports team to a disproportionately small American Indian population, make the Native American landscape of Ohio entirely distinct, said Redmond. “Our makeup is different than the rest of the country.” 

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