Neglected Native History: the Cuyahoga River’s Indigenous Legacy

The Cuyahoga River is largely believed to get its name from a Native American language and to mean “Crooked River.” It’s a belief so widely held that many companies along the river, from archery ranges to auto shops, have adopted the Crooked River moniker. Even this reporting project is named after this supposed native translation.

Yet no evidence suggests such word exists or existed in Ohio native languages.

The word Cuyahoga is actually more likely a corrupted or misheard word from either the Iroquois or Seneca languages. Alfred Keye, Frances Froman and Lottie Keye suggest in their 2014 book, English-Cayuga/ Cayuga-English Dictionary, that the word given to the river by Native Americans was more likely gayó’ha’geh, which means “On the chin,” or “Gihe’hoga.” which translates to “Elm River.”

This widely held misconception about Ohio’s Native American history and language is reflective of a larger void in its collective understanding of Ohio’s first residents.

Brian Redmond, a curator of archeology for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has spent a long career studying the lives and cultures of Ohio’s historical Native American populations. Although there is 13,000 years of Ohio’s Native American history, he says most Ohioans have little foundational knowledge of this history.

“Most people I ask think it’s about 200 years,” he says. This far-off estimate may be the result of poor education of Native American histories, Redmond suggests.

He breaks down the history of Native Americans in Ohio in a few different ways.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Pre-contact Native Americans

The first Native Americans in Ohio lived in the Cuyahoga Valley in temporary, moveable groups that relied mostly on hunting. Once the climate shifted to resemble more modern conditions, gathering also became a major strategy for these family units to acquire resources.

A shift to what anthropologists call the Woodland period was marked with change both massive and incremental. As opposed to the Paleo-hunter Native Americans, the Woodland period that started around 2,000 years ago was a time with more stability in living and agriculture.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

During this period, a phenomenon known as the Hopewell tradition reached Northeast Ohio. Rather than a specific people or tribe, Hopewell was more like a culture, one Redmond has compared to Western cultural norms, like wearing blue jeans and listening to pop music.

Hopewell culture ushered in some of Ohio’s most iconic indigenous symbols. One famous example of this is the earth mounds scattered throughout Ohio. These were largely concentrated in southern Ohio, but evidence of the Hopewell culture does exist in the Cuyahoga Valley. Smaller mounds and other artifacts have been found in Everett Village.

“Mound Cemetery, Marietta OH” by P_R_F is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Hopewell was likely a religious movement, says Redmond. Bladelets, pieces of stone with curved ends, probably served a similar function that crosses do in Christian religious traditions, he said, and mounds were possibly intricate religious sites. Redmond thinks one such mound in Chillicothe may have even served as a major religious destination for American Indian groups outside of Ohio. “It was like a Mecca,” he said.

Many goods from around the rest of the continent, like obsidian and mica, were found along the Cuyahoga river during this time period, suggesting it played an important role in a larger, complicated trade network that relied heavily on rivers.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

This culture of religious emphasis, trade and larger communities continued till about 400 A.D., at which point it completely stopped. From 400 A.D. till 1,000 A.D., the region remained largely without humans, save for seasonal hunters. The Whittlesey were the dominant Ohio Native American group from around 1,000 to 1630 A.D. Unlike the Hopewell culture, they lived in smaller settlements and did not engage in complex trade networks.

Once again, the region was empty around 1650 A.D. Researchers have not come to a consensus as to why.

Post-contact Native Americans

Native Americans returned to the region around 1730, often pushed out of neighboring states and into Ohio. By 1750, they were almost exclusively using European tools, a phenomenon that poses challenges to an archeological understanding of Native American cultures, says Redmond.

This was a time of ongoing war between the British, French and Native American populations. In addition to aggression from Europeans, there was in-fighting among tribes to compete for trade monopolies with the colonizing forces. Indigenous Ohio tribes likely moved westward toward Wisconsin, says Redmond, a move which was likely economically and conflict-driven.

In 1795, the Treaty of Greenville established the eastern border of Native American territory along the Cuyahoga River. This was one of many lopsided treaties over the following decades to be eventually broken.

Years of conflict, disease and American Indian removal from Ohio resulted in very few Native Americans remaining in the Cuyahoga Valley by 1805, says Redmond. By this point, there were essentially no large concentrations of indigenous populations left.

Modern life

The state of Native Americans in Ohio had remained dismal up to the 1950s, when there were practically no Native Americans in the state or Cuyahoga region, and even fewer who had historical ties to the land.

This changed in 1956.

That year, the Indian Relocation Act was established to incentivize Native Americans to leave tribal lands and reservations to come to urban areas. The last urban destination the program added was Cleveland. The act was a part of a larger national policy on Native Americans, known as termination, which aimed to dissolve reservations and cultural distinctions between Native Americans and white Americans.

Marie Toledo, a Native American activist located in Cleveland whose father moved from a New Mexico reservation to Cleveland as a part of relocation, says that termination and relocation sought to eliminate native culture by terminating tribal lands and reservations and assimilating Native Americans into mainstream white culture. Part of this involved distributing propaganda posters and pamphlets showing native families in domestic settings to demonstrate what their lives off-reservation would look like. “They have nice clothes and kitchen appliances (in the propaganda).” she says.

However, the reality was much different from the promise. Many relocated Native Americans, like her father, were housed in the Northeast corner of downtown Cleveland in run-down apartments. Toledo says the living conditions were “not like the imagery in the pamphlets.”

There was some vocational training the government provided, but as Alexia Fernandez Campbell reported for The Atlantic, relocated Native Americans faced job discrimination, culture shock and other obstacles to assimilation.

Relocation was tied to the goal of the federal government to eliminate Native American culture by absorbing it into the melting pot, Toledo says. She continues to live in her father’s relocation destination of Cleveland, even though she says, “I’ve always struggled against it.”

This disjointed sense of belonging is not uncommon with Native Americans in Northeast Ohio. But given Cleveland’s population is less than 1% Native American, those that do reside in Cleveland and along the river have found their own ways of forming community. For Toledo, she takes her son on trips to Jemez Pueblo, her reservation in New Mexico. She also seeks out solidarity in multicultural Native American organizations in Cleveland. Although the activities and traditions of these groups, like Powwows, may come from other tribes and not reflect her specific cultural heritage, Toledo stills engages in them.

“To be around Native people, I will go to those things,” she says.

Numerous Native American cultural organizations have emerged to bring together Cleveland Native Americans searching to understand, promote and develop their culture. Organizations like American Indian Movement and Lake Erie Native American Council are among those groups. And as the region reckons with the 50th anniversary of the burning of the Cuyahoga, some have come to also incorporate celebrations of the history of indigenous people along the river. Xtinguish Torchfest, a celebration of the river, featured Native American blessings along the waterway.

The history of Native Americans along the Cuyahoga River is a dynamic, fraught and ever-evolving story. Toledo thinks issues faced by the modern native community, like substance abuse and poverty, can partially be credited as the legacies of colonialism, relocation and termination. To her, it’s a matter of giving Native Americans the power and recognition so long withheld from them.

“It’s like Horton Hears a Who,” Toledo says. “When a community is not seen or heard, then they’re not served.”

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