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A new Ohio park honors the past, present and future of Shawnee peoples

A large wooden and glass building stands in the background as dozens of people stand around, clumped in groups on asphalt.
Ruthie Herman
Great Council State Park during the grand opening on Friday, June 7, 2024.

At first glance, Great Council State Park in Xenia Township, Greene County looks like any other in Ohio: a stretch of prairie, a smattering of trees, trails that lead off into the forest. But its location is part of what makes it special: it sits on the former site of Old Chillicothe – one of the largest-known 18th century Shawnee villages in Ohio. Now, it’s the 76th Ohio state park.

Great Council is the newest addition to the state park system. And it’s the first and only to feature a center honoring Ohio’s Native peoples.

Shawnee tribes and their ancestors had a presence in the Ohio River Valley for more than 14,000 years before the federal government forcibly removed them in the early 19th century.

On the "shoulders of giants"

Chief Glenna Wallace from the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma called the opening of this park a historic moment.

“We stand upon the shoulders of giants who have gone before us. For every single person involved in the beginning, the construction and then the future of this, you are indeed a giant. And we congratulate you,” Chief Wallace said.

Her tribe is one of three federally recognized Shawnee nations, along with the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and the Shawnee Tribe. All three had a hand in creating the $16 million park.

At the opening celebration on June 7, Chief Ben Barnes from the Shawnee Tribe said this park will ensure their culture persists in Ohio.

“When we're up here, I've often wondered, ‘How often will Shawnee language be heard in our homelands after our absence?’ And today you've heard some of it. But you will have it here in Ohio for all time now, thanks to this museum,” Chief Barnes said.

Years in the making

The park’s construction was officially announced in 2021.

For the last three years, people like Barnes and Talon Silverhorn have been working on the details of the park. Silverhorn is a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe and the cultural programs manager for Ohio Department of Natural Resources (or ODNR). He relocated to Ohio from Oklahoma to do on-the-ground planning for Great Council.

Silverhorn said one of the most important features of the park is the Shawnee interpretive center, which is modeled after an 18th century Shawnee longhouse.

“Here at Great Council, one of the things that you will see consistently is an interpretation of Shawnee life through different time periods and the persistence of the Shawnee community into the contemporary, with a big focus on where we are today,” he said.

The two-story center features a theater, an indoor living stream populated with native aquatic life, a photo exhibit and interactive displays. The park also focuses on natural features, such as access to the Little Miami River and native prairie planted on site.

An ongoing commitment

Though the park is officially erected, Governor Mike DeWine said the development process isn’t over.

“We have an obligation here to tell the story as best we know it. Doesn't mean everything's perfect, doesn't mean we get everything right, but I think we're going to continue to see this evolve,” DeWine said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Chief Ben Barnes.

“We've been engaged with Ohio for more than 20 years. So this is just one more step in that ongoing continuation of a growing relationship,” he said.

Educational events will be recurring at the park. Some event series include The Trading Post – which is a discussion of the 18th century fur trade, Pelts to Patterns – which explores historical Shawnee clothing and more.

ODNR’s cultural programs manager Talon Silverhorn said the park and its center are meant to be dynamic spaces, continuously changing as more Shawnee history – and more recent stories of their peoples – emerge.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO.