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Insider: Unfair Fairways? Volume 59 Number 6, November/December 2006

[image] Ohio's Newark Mounds, still sacred to Native Americans, date back some 2,000 years. The site's circular and octagon mounds are now part of a golf course. (Richard Pirko) [LARGER IMAGE]

Two thousand years ago, Ohio's Newark Mounds were at the heart of the Hopewell civilization, a sophisticated culture that stretched from New York to Missouri. The mounds, the most extensive prehistoric geometric structures in the United States, were also probably the most sacred sites in the Hopewell world. The massive earthworks that remain include a 20-acre circle and a 50-acre octagon. Both are now in play at the Par 71 golf course of Newark's Mound Builders Country Club.

The tenancy of the private club over the years has been, not surprisingly, a source of controversy. Tensions boiled over last year in a disagreement between the club and Native Americans seeking access to the mounds to watch a moonrise that aligns with the octagon every 18 years. The club canceled a planned moonrise event because it feared rainfall, combined with the presence of crowds, would damage the greens. But as many as 100 celebrants snuck onto the course in defiance of the club. Since then, the controversy has ratcheted up. Recent negotiations between the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) and the club for a similar moonrise event broke down. The club plans to go ahead with an event this October, but the OHS withdrew official participation, citing differing views on the level of access the public should be granted.

The site has a complicated ownership history. The citizens of Newark originally purchased the mounds, then on private farmland, in 1893. The city leased the earthworks to the Mound Builders Country Club in 1910 and the site has been a golf course ever since. In 1934, when ownership of the site was transferred to the OHS, the country club stayed. Its lease runs until 2078 and stipulates that the club "shall not mar the beauty of the mounds," and insures that the public will have reasonable access to the site. But there's considerable disagreement between Native Americans and the country club as to what that means.

"The public has access to the site more than 127 days a year depending on weather," says club president Mark Walters. "We want to make sure everyone can see it, but we have to balance our needs too. We pay a lease."

According to Barbara Crandell, a Cherokee who was arrested in 2002 for trespassing at the mounds, access is usually limited to an observation platform near the clubhouse parking lot. "And when we do have full access to the site it's the day they spray the herbicide," she says. "I asked them if they had any smallpox blankets." She also maintains that in the past, golfers have gone out of their way to make visitors uncomfortable at the site. While some members may be annoyed by visitors to their course, Walters says many are volunteering for the moonrise event this fall.

The OHS is in a delicate position. Its mandate is to ensure reasonable public access to the site, but it has to respect the rights of the club as well. Passions run high on both sides. "The mounds need to be a public site and the club needs to relocate," says Richard Shiels, a history professor at the Ohio State University Newark. "I've even heard club members say they should be bought out." The state or the National Park Service would be the likeliest candidates, but no effort to purchase the site has ever been made. Full public access to the mounds might have to wait until 2078.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America