A 13-year winter solstice tradition at Serpent Mound was canceled this year and the organization that sponsored it and other local residents are not happy.
The Ohio History Connection (OHC), formerly known as the Ohio Historical Society, said it discontinued the Lighting of the Serpent event, which was held annually on Dec. 21 at Serpent Mound by the Friends of Serpent Mound.
“The decision to discontinue Lighting the Serpent was based on careful evaluation of the event and how it relates to the history of Serpent Mound,” the OHC said in a prepared statement. “The Ohio History Connection seeks to support programming and events that align with the sacred American Indian heritage of the site and provide authentic educational experiences for the public. This event does not align with these goals.
“Through our ongoing work to be more responsible and respectful stewards of all of our American Indian heritage sites and through consultation and relationships with federally recognized tribes, we understand more about what it means to care for and preserve American Indian heritage sites,” added Burt Logan, executive director and CEO of the OHC. “Changing how we manage events at Serpent Mound allows us to fully embrace our role as respectful stewards of the site and will provide a more consistent and authentic experience for visitors.”
But the Friends of Serpent Mound and others are not buying that reasoning.
“This arbitrary decision, announced just weeks before this year’s lighting, is just the latest example of OHC’s total lack of concern for our community,” Peebles resident Steve Boehme wrote in a recent letter to The Times-Gazette. “OHC Director Burt Logan justified his diktat with lots of fancy words about ‘embracing our role as respectful stewards’ of Serpent Mound. Between the lines, OHC is closing the debate about Serpent Mound’s native American history, limiting the ways the park can be enjoyed to a narrow script of political correctness. This is a slap in the face to many, many people who revere Serpent Mound, or simply enjoy it as a family destination.”
Logan said the decision to end the tradition was his, and was based on recommendations from the 21-member OHC board. He also said the decision is permanent.
“In 2004, the Friends of Serpent Mound began what had become a very popular Ohio tradition of honoring the ancient native inhabitants who memorialized the special annual moment of the winter solstice by lighting over 1,000 luminary candles outlining the entire Serpent Mound,” Delsey Wilson, executive director of the Friends of Serpent Mound, said in a news release. “This Lighting the Serpent event has brought thousands of people on a winter pilgrimage to Adams County to view this unique, iconic image of the serpentine figure glowing by candlelight, and had become the most well-attended event at Serpent Mound each year, despite sometimes cold and snowy weather.”
Wilson said Midwest Living magazine in 2011 named the event as one of its Ten Best Places to Celebrate Christmastime in the Midwest.
Boehme claims the OHC’s decision is a breach of a contract with the Friends of Serpent Mound. He said the OHC’s deed for Serpent Mound requires it to maintain Serpent Mound as a public park forever, or stand to forfeit its ownership of the internationally known historic site.
“Although we recognize that many people have enjoyed the Lighting of the Serpent event over the years, we are responsible for preserving and interpreting Serpent Mound so that people understand the accurate and authentic history of this sacred American Indian site,” Logan said. “Lining the mound with luminaria is not connected with its history.”
The OHC said its on-site manager of Serpent Mound, the Arc of Appalachia, will focus on educational programming and events that support the known cultural and natural history heritage of Serpent Mound. In addition, the OHC said new interpretive signs have been installed at Serpent Mound to help educate visitors.
Wilson, meanwhile, questioned why the OHC’s decision to cancel the event was made just eight weeks before it was supposed to happen.
“Why couldn’t we go ahead and have it this year and then discuss it?” she asked. “There has been no discussing anything with them. They are basically dictating everything to us.”
Greenfield resident Jerry Turner said he attended the Lighting of the Serpent each of the last two years. He said that both he and a friend he described as being “almost full-blooded Sioux” posted the event on their Facebook pages and received no negative feedback from anyone.
“I’m just asking for feedback. The more silence I get the more curious I get,” Turner said. “When something beautiful is destroyed to make a statement about race, it’s pretty creepy.”
He said cancellation of the event has an economic impact on Highland and Adams counties.
According to the Friends of Serpent Mound, the Native American builders of the mound designed and constructed it so that on the winter solstice one bend of the serpent points to the location on the horizon where the sun rises, while another turn of the serpent points directly through the center of the spiral tail and onward to the horizon where the sun sets.
The Friends of Serpent Mound claim that Logan reached his decision without any discussion with them, and instead based it on objections raised by a handful of Native Americans who live outside of Ohio, and who Logan declined to identify.
“It’s an unfortunate shame that this popular, free, family event has been ended because of some unspecified and vague objections by people who are not even living in the state of Ohio,” Friends of Serpent Mound President Jeffrey Wilson said in a news release. “We would like to thank all of the hundreds of volunteers and the thousands of visitors who have participated in the candle lighting over the past decade who have made the event magical and memorable.”
Delsey Wilson said anyone wanting more information can reach her at 937-205-0094 or [email protected]
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or [email protected]