Changing the narrative: Future Ohio state park aims to tell the accurate history of Tecumseh and the Shawnee people

Cars and semi-trucks pass by the vacant Tecumseh Motel along U.S. Route 68 in Oldtown, Ohio, on Oct. 6, 2021. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources currently owns the motel and department members are collaborating with Shawnee leaders to create a new space that tells the honest history of the land and first inhabitants of that land. (Photo by Sarah Liese)

Sarah Liese
2021 Native American Journalism Fellow

A few feet from the two-lane highway in Oldtown, Ohio, the Tecumseh Motel’s parking lot remains guarded by blue spray paint, blue flags and silver chains, signaling visitors to stay off the property. The motel’s dated sign showcases a cartoon figure of Tecumseh, a respected Shawnee chief who defended his land and people against encroaching settler raids in the early 19th century

Native American representation in Ohio has been rocky, and most often than not, one-sided. 

There are no federally recognized tribal nations in the state. However, Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up 2 percent of the state’s population and 2.9 percent in the country, according to the 2020 census. 

Ohio resident and member of the ​Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, Cynthia Connolly, has taken note of the invisibility of the Native population in the Buckeye state since moving to Ohio in 2007. She believes the representation in the state is sorely lacking. 

“We’re almost never talked about or portrayed as modern, living people,” Connolly said. “We’re not viewed as your neighbors, your co-workers or your classmates. It’s always in this historical context, this romanticized context.” 

Connolly is working to educate students at Kent State University, shifting the false narratives derived from sources both culturally and academically suspect. She believes Native history should not just be explained in depth in college, but beginning in elementary school. 

“I think every school district should take a step back and audit their schools and schools’ curriculum, and see if they are only talking about Native Americans before the year 1900,” she said.“And if they are one of those schools, then they need to remedy that.”

Ohio also has the largest number of K-12 schools in the country that employ Native-themed mascots, totaling 204 schools and 72 school districts, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Out of the 204 schools, 26 schools use the R-word, and 16 schools use the mascot “Redmen.” 

Middle schoolers on the Miller basketball team run drills inside the former Shawnee high school gym on March 3, 2021. The town named “Shawnee” is a particularly quiet village made up of about 650 people, located in southeast Ohio. Subtle references of the name of the village emerge around the town, in the case of this gym, the cartoon mural of a warrior presents an interpretation of the first inhabitants of the land—the Shawnee. (Photo by Sarah Liese)
“Indians” is the most used Native-themed mascot, as it is used by 37 schools and 15 districts. The second highest Native-themed mascot is the name “Warriors,” which is used by 18 schools and 8 districts, according to the National Congress of American Indians. (Graph created by Sarah Liese via data by the National Congress of American Indians).

Following the Cleveland Indians’ decision in 2020 to change the name to the Cleveland Guardians — fueled by pressure from Indigenous activists and organizations for decades — 10 K-12 schools in Ohio stopped using their Native-themed mascots. 

Mēxihcah activist and executive director of the American Indian Movement in Ohio, Philip Yenyo, explained school districts started reaching out to the organization for advice about changing their mascots. He said schools start calling within days of the name change. 

“Parma Carmel High School — that’s just south of the Cleveland border — they called us because they were known as the ‘Redman,’” he said. “They wanted information on how they could go about it. And alumni associations also called us wanting to change Fairview Park. They were the ‘Warriors,’ and they still have the same name, but they changed their logo to be something completely different.”

Yenyo said it was positive to see Ohio schools following suit with MLB’s baseball team as he protested its name and mascot, which he described as disrespectful and “the same old stereotype.”

“You’re not honoring us; you’re actually making fun of us,” Yenyo said. “And then you have your schools, using these images and then not even understanding certain words or terms.”

In an effort to eliminate the use of Native-themed mascots, NCAI along with the Shawnee Tribe, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, the American Indian Movement of Ohio, the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, the Lake Erie Native American Council, and the Lake Erie Professional Chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society sent a letter on Aug. 11 to school and district administrators with Native American mascots, urging them to choose a new mascot to represent their institution. 

Connolly attributed her agreement with the decision to send the letter because of the negative effects caused by Native-themed mascots in Native communities. 

“We know that when Americans have no concept of who we are as a people today, they’re least likely to support our social justice issues and they’re least likely to support our socio-economic fights,” she said. “ It generates apathy, and that’s harmful to our communities.”

Though the fight to prohibit the use of Native American imagery and team names is an uphill battle for Native organizations, activists and Shawnee tribal leaders, there is one project in the middle of the state that is bringing together leaders from the state of Ohio and the Shawnee nations. Their main goal is to put forth a thoughtfully accurate narrative of the state’s rich history, one portrayal of Native Americans both sides can agree on.

The parking lot is guarded by a chain fence and a “private property” sign, alluding visitors to stay off the property. (Photo by Sarah Liese)

Last July, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tweeted that he and his wife visited the Tecumseh Motel, a dormant motel located in Oldtown, Ohio, about 20 miles outside of Dayton.  He noted that he had discussions about transforming the dated motel into a state park that tells “the story of Tecumseh & the Shawnee Tribe.”  

Staying true to that promise, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has partnered with the Shawnee Tribe Cultural and Historical Preservation Committee, Shawnee tribal leaders, and the Ohio History Connection to discuss the fate of the lodging destination. Currently, the property is owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and spans about half an acre; however, the department hopes to secure more land.    

An interpretation center is among one of the critical plans for the park, with construction anticipated to begin in 2022. The center will be the first of its kind in the state and will commemorate one of the largest-known Shawnee settlements in Ohio. The traditional longhouses used by the Shawnee tribe inspired the design concept of the interpretive center, estimated to be about 6,000 and 7,000 square feet once completed. 

The interpretive center will take the design of traditional longhouses used by the Shawnee tribe and is estimated to be about  6,000 and 7,000 square feet. (Photo rendering by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources)

“ODNR is still in the process of determining what kind of exhibits will be displayed, but the two-story building will provide plenty of space for historic stories of the Shawnee tribe to be told,” said Stephanie O’Grady in an email, who is the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Media and Outreach specialist. 

Given the early planning stages, talks between the various groups have been continuous. As described by the leader of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Chief Glenna Wallace, the meetings have been positive, signaling the continuing changes of the state’s present history. 

In line with Shawnee voices having a hand in the development of the state park, Talon Silverhorn, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and cultural preserver, has been named the Cultural Programs Manager of the park, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. 

Visitors will no longer be able to see the cartoon warrior after construction begins. No date has been set for the opening of the interpretive center, but construction is anticipated to commence in 2022. (Photo by Sarah Liese) 

But despite the current supportive environment, Ohio’s historical sites have been misleading and harmful. Chief Wallace said that before she first began working with the Ohio History Connection in 2007, historical markers in the state were not correct, nor were they respectful.  

“Quite honestly, when we visited some places, the depictions were so horrible and so inaccurate,” Wallace said. “The term that was so often used to describe (Native people) … was ‘savages.’ …  And if somebody didn’t intervene and speak up, that’s all we would be known in history as savages.” 

The organization started to build its relationship with federally recognized tribal nations in 2009, according to an Ohio History Connection news release.  The objective when sharing Native stories is to consult federally recognized tribes, ensuring the Native American perspective and solidifying the state’s legitimate history.  

Written in the guideline document is a sensitivity section that addresses word choice savages and massacre. The historical organization prohibits the use of savages and strongly advises that the use of massacre only be used in specific situations.  

Since working with the Ohio History Connection, Wallace noted progress she has seen and expressed optimism that the state will continue moving in the right direction. Wallace suggested that Ohio residents feel regretful about the history and are seeking to make corrections in order to better understand the past.  

“They aren’t responsible for that history, but they don’t necessarily want the state of Ohio to be associated with that (history) any longer,” Wallace said.  

One of those residents, with a desire to learn history from the Native point of view, is the governor of Ohio. As someone who grew up near the area, it was his idea to receive the input of Shawnee leaders before constructing the state park. 

“The governor, himself, concedes that he is very interested in Indian history and thought that he knew quite a bit,” Wallace said. “But (he) is realizing that much of what he has learned was that fictionalized version, and he himself has indicated he wants this to be an accurate presentation.”

O’Grady highlighted that the governor’s goal is not only to provide the accurate history of Ohio but also of the nation. The governor also noted how important the Shawnee people are to the state of Ohio and its history. 

“Preserving the site at Oldtown gives us the opportunity to connect future generations of Ohioans with the past, to preserve the Shawnee legacy, and to give the Shawnee a platform to share their story,” Gov. Dewine said.  

The Tecumseh Motel project brings tribal leaders together with the department for the first time, which is a relationship both parties hope will strengthen. 

“We do not currently have specific projects slated for collaboration, but we’re looking forward to continuing this relationship into the future,” O’Grady said. 

Connolly believes the start park is a step in the right direction, but the road toward accurate Native representation must continue to be paved. 

“They’re going to honor history, collaborating with the tribes like they’re doing, is very important, and it’s the way it should be done,” said Connolly. “But I also urge our leadership to pay attention to how we’re represented in the 21st century, and that we’re not right now. And there is a lot of work that needs to be done in that regard, especially in our K-12 education systems.” 

Sarah Liese (Navajo/ Chippewa/ Cree) is a graduate student in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. She is a fellow (mentor-in-training) at the Native American Journalist Association and a Sundance Institute Full Circle Fellow. Previously, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Mississippi and was a 2017 NAJA fellow.