To mark the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Society of American Indians, a group of friends and scholars traveled from The Ohio State University to a golf course in nearby Newark. There, among the tended greens, they climbed to the center of Observatory Mound and gazed across the Octagon Earthworks built by the Hopewell people between 100 bc and 400 ad. What can be known when gathering in a place centuries old? How have the shadows shifted? What traces left by others are real and what traces of today can be left in places where the layers of time are so visible?
We knew these mounds, like the ancestors of those gathered, were Indigenous, crafted by people who planted, sowed, traded, and traveled near the waterways of the Great Lakes. People who fashioned small figurines and built vast geometrically perfect shapes centered on the arc of the lunar cycle. They wore large earrings, mined copper, gathered meteors, and buried their dead carefully, with precision, in mounds of earth. The stories they carved in stone included bears and severed heads. It is difficult to know much more for certain.
We also knew that our more immediate predecessors came from many Native nations and were not yet citizens of the United States. Yet, when they gathered on the mound they sang the song Martin Luther King wove into his Dream speech, the song sung at both of Barack Obama’s inaugural celebrations, a song many forget is based on the British national anthem . . . “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” It is easy to understand the force with which they must have sung, “My native country, thee . . . I love thy rocks and rills, Thy woods and templed hills.” But the poignant irony of this particular group singing “Land where my fathers died . . . Land of the pilgrims’ pride” provokes a sort of melancholy that [End Page 237] postcolonial theorists might today connect to historical trauma. The first American lyrics were proudly written in 1831, shortly after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act setting in motion decades of removal, including the infamous Trail of Tears.
Standing on the mounds in 2011, we knew the impact of the Reorganization Act, the cataclysmic ripple of the American Indian Movement, the importance of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the ongoing struggles to uphold the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. These laws came together here, these longitudes of practice and latitudes of purpose. Standing in a place that connected minds on earth with celestial time, I finally understood the theory of relativity. Space and time are related. Light and sound have speed. And perhaps the best way to stop time or cross time or step out of time altogether is to make sound.
Not one of us moved one archeological spoon of earth, but we offered instead waves of sound across the day. We came to this ancient place and traded feelings with the unknown. Like those who came before us, we sang of the nations we wished most to represent. Many of us, already citizens of beautiful America, sang of our sovereign nations. Like those before us we stood in a space marked by the past and sang into the future.
Jane Hafen sang a Hopi harvest song of gratitude she learned from her brother, John Rainer Jr. Alice Te Punga Somerville sang a Maori song from the other side of the world.
LeAnne Howe sang a warrior’s song and pointed out that Choctaws were mound builders in the not too distant past. “I sing it quite a bit,” she said, “especially when I need strength to fight off something. I didn’t like the feeling of the invasion I had there: The men at work blowing away leaves, the grounds keepers’ keeping an eye on us, the rude men driving their golf carts over the mounds . . . just because they could.”
Monique Mojica said hers was not a “traditional” cultural song but one she created for her play Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way. She explained, “I chose it over other prayer songs I could have offered because in the...