I said I’d do a land acknowledgment for every place I stayed this year. I started with my home. I’m adding one more: Covington Catholic High School, located on Dixie Highway in Park Hills, Kentucky, a wealthy suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. I haven’t been here, but with Native leaders reaching out to the school to help educate its staff and students, I offer this for historical context.
CovCath, as they call themselves, is located about a mile south of the Ohio River. The Ohio River Valley, which occupies a vast swath of woodlands from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, has long been prime real estate in North America. For over 10,000 years it has been a hunting ground, meeting place, and transportation corridor all at once. It’s a place where people and ideas converge.
It was home to the Mississippian mound building culture pre-Columbus, a culture famous for its large cities (larger than Paris and London at the time) and temple mounds. After apparently suffering de-population from diseases spread by DeSoto, though he never went this far north, survivors and other groups maintained a presence. By the 1600s, the great Haudenosaunee Confederacy (the Five Nations of the Iroquois), one of the world’s oldest democracies, managed much of the Ohio River Valley essentially as the world’s large game refuge. They burned the forest undergrowth annually to create a giant deer park. It was overseen by vassal states, called Half-Kings.
By 1750, the valley was embroiled in a massive turf war between the French and the British, each seeking exclusive rights to trade with the local Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, Miami, Kispoko, Maumee, Mingo, and others. A world war started here: the Seven Years War (known in North America as the French and Indian War). The British won it in 1763 and prohibited European settlement west of the Appalachians– supposedly.
In 1772, after a massive influx of illegal white settlements, this part of Kentucky became Cherokee cession #5, ceded to the British governor of Virginia. Like the Iroquois, the Cherokee were only using it as a hunting ground; they had no villages or towns here.
With US independence, the flood of white settlers intensified. Barges loaded with furniture, supplies, and settlers poured down the Ohio River. The Shawnee occasionally attacked them. Tecumseh tried to unite all the tribes from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico to form a curtain to stop the white settlers, to create an independent Native nation state. He was trying to win back large parts of the Ohio River Valley that older chiefs, forced into debt by the fur trade and lack of game, had already signed over in exchange for annuities which never arrived. Tecumseh was defeated and the great game refuge, now bereft of most of its deer, reverted to white settlement.
Here I could focus on physical changes in the land in the last two hundred years: economic development, environmental degradation, etc. But I’ll focus on the myths and beliefs of the white settlers.
Throughout the 1800s, white US school children were taught that the old Mound Builders were probably white, probably from Europe, but were wiped out by “merciless Indian savages”. Thus, in a way, the white American settlers were only re-claiming their own land; they were the true Americans.
Today, the “mound builder myth” is being revived by neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and Fox News. That myth is probably not taught at Covington Catholic High School, but it’s not clear what is. Though they reside on former Native land, they seem to have no respect for Native Americans nor understanding of their history. The students of CovCath bring with them, of course, their religion from overseas. They claim to follow Jesus, who preached that God’s love applied not just to Israelites, but “to all nations”, including –especially– marginalized people: women, lepers, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, and other ethnic groups. Yet they wear “Make America Great Again” hats, a message specific to one nation and one ethnic group, a symbol of white supremacy, a symbol likely to offend the very marginalized groups they should be committed to serving.
The students at Covington Catholic High School, and by extension their parents, teachers, and priests, appear to be occupiers with no understanding of their past nor of their own stated beliefs.
Below is an official statement from the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska regarding Nathan Phillips’ encounter with the CovCath students. It concludes with, “America to us will always be our homelands, and for that it will always be great.”