Whose Land Are We On?

The City of Oberlin celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the second time ever this Monday, after officially changing the holiday’s name from Columbus Day in 2017. Oberlin joins a growing number of cities around the country in rejecting dominant narratives of colonial expansion, instead choosing to recognize and remember the violence that Columbus and other settlers inflicted — and continue to inflict — on Indigenous peoples across North and South America.

We stand behind the City of Oberlin in changing the holiday’s name. We also view the change as an opportunity to further consider the histories of Indigenous communities who lived here before us.

A land acknowledgement is a conscious, historically-grounded statement about the histories of lands, peoples, and how they connect. There are many important moments for reflection on who lived on this land prior to our arrival — the week of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is particularly timely, so we now take the opportunity to acknowledge the history of the land now known as Oberlin.
Interestingly, while different historical clues have led scholars to some conclusions about the history of Ohio’s Indigenous communities, much remains unknown about the area’s inhabitants prior to European contact.

Living in the Vermilion River Watershed, edited by Professor of Biology Mary Garvin and John C. Reid Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and English Jan Cooper, provides some insight. Specifically, this issue is covered in the chapter, “The First Settlers: Native Peoples of the Vermilion Watershed,” written by Brian Redmond, Curator and John Otis Hower Chair of Archaeology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Redmond broadly lays out Ohio’s population history, dating back about 13,000 years. He leans heavily on the findings of Ohio archaeologists who, over the past nearly 100 years, have discovered spear points distinctive to the area, indicating an early society largely dependent on hunting mammoths and mastodons. Later, fragments of clay cooking pots dating back about 3,000 years were found along the Vermillion River, indicating a transforming social lifestyle.

For thousands of years, communities lived in relative prosperity in northern Ohio. However, historical evidence suggests that most Indigenous populations had left the region by about 400 years ago. Scholars hypothesize that these departures were at least partially due to conflict with Iroquoian-speaking groups to the northeast, who sought to gain dominance over competitors in the growing trade of beaver pelts with the Europeans.

Because this departure came prior to significant European presence in Ohio, not much is known about the communities who left. For about 100 years, beginning in the mid-17th century, northern Ohio is believed to have been relatively devoid of human presence. Then, in the mid-18th century, Indigenous communities returned to the Vermilion Watershed — most notably the Wyandotte and Ottawa tribes, according to Redmond.

Similarly to Ohio’s original Native populations, the Wyandotte and Ottawa had been driven from their homes at Lake Huron’s basin due to mid-17th century conflict, arriving in northern Ohio roughly a century later — around the same time Europeans had arrived to the area. By the early 19th century, however, both tribes had largely left the area.

While Redmond doesn’t provide much detail about why the tribes left, it’s important to recognize that they did so around the same time Rev. John J. Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart founded the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, now known as Oberlin College and Conservatory.

Shipherd and Stewart were both disaffected by dominant culture on the Western frontier. They sought a new space in which to bring their vision of learning, labor, and religious commitment — inspired by pastor John F. Oberlin — to life. They settled in Oberlin, the land recently vacated by the Wyandotte and the Ottawa, which had previously been occupied by Native peoples for more than 100 centuries.

By all accounts, Oberlin is a place that has done much to uphold and promote social justice and equity. Why, then, is it important to acknowledge that this land — like all land in the United States — is not originally ours, and that we, its current residents, unfairly benefit from the histories of those who we displaced? What bearing does this have on our lives today?

In short, thinking about these things is important because, without doing so, we don’t have a shot at making things better going forward. Ignoring our history means ignoring the impacts of colonization and how that process paved the way for Oberlin College, the institution we all care so deeply about.

So, this week and in the weeks to come, consider the traditional caretakers of this land — particularly in the context of the latest UN climate report, which further illuminates the extent to which our social and economic ideals have created an unsustainable world.

It’s a small gesture, especially in scale of the violence committed against Indigenous communities in this country. But it is an important one nonetheless — and one that makes good on Oberlin’s historical and present commitment to social justice. As we celebrate all that Oberlin has to offer, we must do so with those who we displaced in mind, or we risk remembering only part of our history.