Native American celebration of the summer solstice
Each year around the summer solstice, Mounds State Park in Anderson, Indiana hosts a Summer Solstice Celebration with the help of the Miami Nation of Indiana. Only on this day are visitors allowed onto the sacred Great Mound to take part in solstice ceremonies as the indigenous Adena-Hopewell mound builders did long ago.
The Adena people were the first mound builders. The Adena culture was a loose society of Woodland Indians living in the Ohio Valley who shared similar ceremonial and burial rituals. As trade grew and ideas spread, the Adena culture was slowly subsumed by the Hopewell tradition.
The Great Mound was used for over 450 years as a gathering place for the Adena-Hopewell. No permanent residences or villages were established near the mounds. The site was used for purely ceremonial purposes. The Indians of the Adena-Hopewell tradition would make the pilgrimage on foot or by canoe -- some maybe from as far away as Ohio -- to take part in ceremonies held several times a year at the Great Mound. Around 200 CE, the Hopewell stopped using the site and by 500 CE, they had disappeared from Indiana.
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The Great Mound
Age and size of the Great Mound
Located in Mounds State Park are ten mounds built by the Adena culture. The largest of the mounds is the Great Mound, with an embankment that measures about a ¼ mile in circumference and rises 9 feet above the surrounding ground. The inner mound or platform was used as a ceremonial site as early as 250 BCE and the outer embankment was finally completed around 160 BCE. The outer mounds were constructed after the Great Mound was completed and serve as markers for celestial events.
Location and construction
All the mounds in the park are located on the eastern bank of the White River. It was the custom of the Adena mound builders to place their mounds on the eastern side of waterways. The Great Mound was constructed by digging a trench with digging sticks and carrying the earth in woven baskets to the outer edge to form the embankment. The removed earth was carefully selected and graded before being placed onto the inner mound and the embankment where it was tamped by foot to keep it in place.
Astronomical and ceremonial use
The Great Mound served as a burial site and as a gathering place for shamanistic ceremonies and rituals. A gateway leads through the embankment on the south-southwest side and onto the central platform. The platform is the oldest section of the Great Mound and where the rituals and ceremonies were performed. Posts were placed in specific locations around the platform about 250 BCE to perhaps mark the layout of the other mounds and aid in celestial observation before the outer embankment was built. In 50 CE, a smaller mound was built by the Hopewell on the platform and a log tomb was erected upon it.
The trees surrounding the mounds were cut and burned to keep the view to the horizon clear. The embankment itself formed an artificial horizon. Posts made of saplings were also placed on the embankment to form a wall. Breaks in the wall occurred at dips and rises in the embankment. The dips and rises mark due North, aid in observing the night sky, and mark major astronomical events such as sunsets on equinoxes and solstices. The outer ring that formed the embankment also served to shield the ceremonies from prying eyes due to its height and offered a place to sit or lie down to observe the events on the platform.
The summer solstice celebration today
The Miami Nation of Indiana holds an annual summer solstice celebration on a weekend near the solstice to honor the indigenous peoples who trekked to the Great Mound for over four and a half centuries.
Beginning in the evening and lasting a little past sunset, a number of activities and ceremonies are performed on the Great Mound’s platform. A brief history tour of the Mounds is followed by Indian folklore tales told from the Lenape tradition by a chubby fur trader who bears a striking resemblance to another folklore legend, St. Nicholas. He tells the Lenape Creation Story, the tale of The Hunter and the Owl and the amusing When Squirrels Were Huge.
As the Miami Nation set up their Sacred Medicine Drum, a flute player performs Native American music. Chief Brian J. Buchanan of the Miami Nation then introduces members of the Miami Nation, dressed in costume, who are participating in the ceremonies and offers a Miami prayer to the Great Spirit -- the Creator of all Life -- and Mother Earth. Then the the Miami men begin their singing and synchronized drumming on the Sacred Medicine Drum. Only the men are allowed to drum in keeping with Miami tradition. As Chief Brian explains, the women are held in high esteem and have their own rituals and council.
A number of Miami songs are performed. During the honor songs, no pictures or recordings are allowed out of respect for those being honored and the sacredness of the songs. When the women are honored, every man in the Great Mound stands to pay tribute while the Miami women dance around the Drum. Members representing other tribes such as the Shawnee are also present. A peace offering of tobacco from a peace pipe is passed around to all on the platform.
As the sun sets, the ceremonies are brought to an end. Veterans are honored and encouraged to come stand with the tribal members on platform. Chief Brian offers a closing prayer and invites everyone to come forward onto the platform and join him. In some years, luminaries light the hiking paths as visitors are led to the other mounds by candlelight. At nightfall, everyone departs and the Great Mound is closed for another year.