In the spring of 2016, descendants from some of the oldest religions in America met with a class of Denison students for a “fireside chat.” Professor Richard D. Shiels, a historian of American religion, hosted Cheryl Cash (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Marti Chaatsmith (Comanche Nation) and John Low (Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi) to speak with students enrolled in Religion 204 “Religious Pluralism and American Identity.”
Shiels, a visiting professor at Denison and the founding director of the Newark Earthworks Center at the Ohio State University, works with American Indians to interpret ancient earthworks built across Ohio and other states long before Europeans arrived. These earthworks were built by ancestors of today’s American Indians and it is very likely their spirituality that inspired them to do so.
“Our guests that evening talked about their own families and about how American Indian spirituality has been affected by the larger American culture,” Shiels said. “The course is really all about how the American environment shapes multiple religious groups.”
“For many of my students that was a very powerful evening,” Shiels added.
Shiels focuses on American Indian culture from ancient times to the present. He is an emeritus professor at The Ohio State University, where he was recognized with Ohio State’s Diversity Enhancement Award and Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching. He is also a key person in World Heritage Ohio, a statewide committee working to inscribe earthworks in Chillicothe, Newark and Warren County on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Professor John Cort, chair of the Department of Religion, observed that Shiels has brought his Earthworks background into his teaching. In a course about religious pluralism, Shiels naturally took advantage of the Earthworks’ proximity.
“The first two or three days we talked about American Indians in North America, before Christopher Columbus,” Shiels said. “We made the point that America was an amazingly diverse place long before Europeans got here. There were brilliant cultures in North America. Columbus informed Ferdinand and Isabella that American Indians “have no religion,” a misconception which the Europeans took as a divine mandate to correct.
Of course Shiels also took the class on a tour of the Great Circle Earthworks in Heath and the Octagon Earthworks in neighboring Newark, two of the only remaining geometric enclosures from literally thousands that still stood across the southern half of Ohio when Euro-American settlement began about 1800.
These are geometric enclosures, huge spaces defined by very precise earthen walls. The Great Circle reflects a sophisticated knowledge of geometry, the Octagon an equally sophisticated knowledge of lunar astronomy. These were ceremonial centers and remain sacred to many American Indians today.
Winning a place on the UNESCO World Heritage site list will bring significant numbers of tourists to central Ohio from across America and the world. Teaching the world about the brilliant culture that emerged here in Ohio two thousand years ago will also change the way we understand American and human history.
For more about Ohio’s American Indian Earthworks:
- www.ancientohiotrail.org has hundreds of brief videos about Ohio earthworks created jointly by the Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites at the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State’s Newark Earthworks Center.
- www.worldheritageohio.org, the website of the World Heritage Ohio Committee which is striving to inscribe Ohio Earthworks on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
- The Newark Earthworks: Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings (Studies in Religion and Culture), edited by Lindsay Jones and Richard D. Shiels, published by the University of Virginia Press.