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A Name with Lost Meaning: Native Americans of Mahoning County

By John Stran

A section of Wick Avenue divides two art galleries — The Butler Institute of American Art and the John J. McDonough Museum of Art.

In the front lawn of the Butler, a sculpture that appears to have turned aged-copper green, crouches and observes traffic, with his hand just over eye view, intently watching how Youngstown State University has changed around him for the last 60 years. The statue is of a Native American man.

Pat McCormick, registrar for the Butler, said the sculpture was made by John Massey Rhind and has several replicas placed throughout the United States.

The Butler is known for being the first museum dedicated to exclusively collecting American Art, so a Native American collection within the museum, along with the statue, may have been an obvious guess. The collection is called the West Explored.

An intense red covers the walls where the collection is stored, a possible symbol of the blood shed by many a tribesperson, as they journeyed through the western United States and beyond.

McCormick said the earliest piece in this collection was a Joseph Sharp painting of someone from the Oglala Sioux tribe, which was purchased by founder Joseph G. Butler Jr. in the latter half of 1895.

McCormick said Joseph Sharp was a Cincinnati native who was intent on documenting the “vanishing life of Native Americans.” This is why McCormick feels it is important to display the collection: to show what has been lost.  

These pieces are not of Native Americans from the Mahoning County, but there are artifacts and tales that depict the culture once roaming and claiming this county. And there are people who prove the culture is still alive today.

A Tribe of 19

Katie Marlow walks through one of several gymnasium type rooms in the Beeghly Center at YSU. As she walks, she talks about her major, exercise science, and how frustrated she is that her field of study is underfunded on campus.

It is likely she shares her ambivalence toward the major with other students. What Marlow may not share with other students in her major is nationality.

Marlow is of Native American decent. She was just one of 19  students enrolled at YSU in the spring 2019 semester who share the culture. As the college expands its admission pool to international students, minority cultures such as Native American, may be at risk of decreasing even further.

Marlow said she is not surprised by the low number of Native American students but feels there may be a bit more than the 19; they just may identify as one of their other nationalities.

Marlow was adopted by a non-Native American family due to her biological parents’ unmanageable drug habits, which eventually killed her biological mother; drug addiction within Native American communities could fill an entirely different article.

Although she was not raised in one of these communities, Marlow was driven to learn more about a specific Native American culture. She decided on the Navajo.

She took a trip to the Southwestern part of the United States, where she immersed herself in Navajo culture by volunteering at a reservation, rebuilding homes and helping to repair a school.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Affairs agency, there are roughly 326 “Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations,” none of which are in Ohio.

In 2016, there was a push from a Shawnee tribe in Oklahoma to obtain land in Lewistown, Ohio, which the tribe said still belongs to them. They were forced to leave this land in the 1830s after president Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act. Their attempt to retrieve the land was reported on by the Al-Jazeera news outlet; since the story’s release, no information has been released on the success of their efforts.  

There are still tribes in Ohio, including the Chaliawa and the Munsee Delaware Indian nations, but neither reside in Mahoning County.

Stories Once Told

What mainly constitutes Native culture in the county today are stories kept of the time Iroquois and Shawnee tribes claimed Mahoning and landmarks that have amassed tales of being a gathering place for different tribes. One of these landmarks is Council Rock.

Council Rock sits at the peak of a hill in Lincoln Park on Youngstown’s east side. Its backdrop is a strip of woods with a few homes around it that appear to have been around as long as this rock has.

By John Stran

Historian Ted Heineman described the legend as it has been written in different history books, including one by J.G. Butler Jr.   

He said around 1755, members from different tribes including Seneca, Shawnee, Mingo and Delaware rallied at Council Rock after battling a British army and declaring victory.

During this celebration around the boulder that Heineman described as the size of a small automobile, the weather took a turn for the worse.  

The celebration feast had just begun when a violent windstorm suddenly descended on the assemblage; trees were blown over and crashed down on the tepees, killing squaws and children,” Heineman said. “In the middle of the storm, one single flash of lightning struck, splitting the great boulder where Indian tribes had gathered.”

In J.G. Butler’s book, “History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley,” he wrote that the valley was once claimed by the Iroquois. He described these Iroquois as a crafty tribe who often dominated in battle and were feared by many of the other tribes.

Native Communities Today

McCormick said Joseph Sharp’s purpose when creating his pieces was to display the vanishing life of Native Americans. That was in the late 1800s.

Since then, the presence of the culture has vanished immensely, but thanks to people like Marlow, there is no eliminating it.

The tribes and parcels of land may be smaller, but this may be because some are stepping outside their reservations and pursuing life beyond what they have been constrained to.

Many of the tribes that are present today are relentless in telling the stories of their ancestors. This, along with the interest of historians and preservationists, means the history of Native Americans will grow with their present.