Students from the Northern Cheyenne Nation and Akron’s Lippman School marked Akron’s first-ever North American First People’s Day on Oct. 1 with a walk along the Portage Path.
The Portage Path, which stretches eight miles from the the Cuyahoga River to the Tuscarawas River, was used as long as 10,000 years ago by indigenous people traveling by canoe across this region. They would exit the Cuyahoga near what is today Merriman Road, walk the Portage Path, and continue south.
At one time, the path formed the western boundary of the United States.
“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson knew about the Portage Path,” said Dave Lieberth, the former Summit County Historical Society board president who helped install arrowhead markers along the historic Portage Path and start the annual walk.
But First People’s Day isn’t about them, organizers said. It’s about the Algonquin, Erie, Iroquois, Miami, Seneca, Ojibwe and dozens of other peoples who lived, traded and visited this region.
“I told my students when we started (doing a Portage Path walk) three years ago… that the natives, the indigenous people that used to live here, they were here with us in spirit, and so they are today. They are celebrating with us,” said Setovaatse, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation who works with the Lippman School on an exchange program.
“One day for them, because they provided the land for all of your ancestors who were here. Now you’re here — you’re here living off this land, you’re here using this water, these trees, this air.”
Setovaatse’s students worked with those of the Lippman School to get Akron City Council to recognize North American First People’s Day.
Sam Chestnut, Head of the Lippman School, said his father was a lawyer who represented the Northern Cheyenne tribe. He and his family grew up visiting their reservation in southeastern Montana. He wanted Lippman students to have the same experience of forming ongoing relationships with Native people.
“We only know Native history through street signs and statues in Akron,” Chestnut said. “Even the greatest textbooks are nothing like meeting real people.”
For eight years, students from the Northern Cheyenne Nation have visited Akron annually, and Lippman students have visited the reservation every other year, Chestnut and Setovaatse said.
“It’s one thing to take a field trip to someone’s home. It’s another to build a reciprocal relationship,” Chestnut said.
Setovaatse, who teaches the Cheyenne language at Chief Dull Knife College, organizes the partnership from Montana’s end. The annual trip to Akron is often his students’ first time on an airplane, he said. The teens learn Jewish traditions, and he appreciates that Lippman still teaches Hebrew, just as he teaches Cheyenne.
“All the schools do not teach that we’re still alive. They tried to erase us by genocide, but we’re still here. They don’t want to teach what they did to us,” Setovaatse said.
There are no active Native American tribes in Ohio today, although Native people still live here. But Northern Cheyenne is part of the Algonquin family of languages, Chestnut said — the same languages that were spoken by some Ohio peoples.
According to the Partnership with Native Americans, the Cheyenne migrated from Canada to Minnesota and the Great Lakes in the 1500s, then to the Great Plains in the 1700s as Europeans arrived on the continent en masse.
“It’s not impossible that there were Northern Cheyenne ancestors on this very path,” Chestnut said.
Middle-school students from the Lippman School, a Jewish institution in Akron, and the Northern Cheyenne Nation began lobbying Akron City Council in 2017 to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
After vocal opposition from the city’s Italian-American community, the coalition of students suggested that Akron recognize the first Monday in October as North American First People’s Day.
Students drafted the resolution that Council passed unanimously in January.
Peter Jones, the Seneca-Onondaga artist who designed the sculptures of Native Americans portaging canoes that mark each end of the Portage Path, visited Akron over the weekend to speak about his 2001 sculptures.
To design the works, he said, he spent months researching the Woodland Indians who lived in this region around the time Europeans arrived.
Visitors convened Sunday evening for a Native American Foods dinner, which featured wild rice in the Ojibwa tradition, Narragansett Succotash and Choctaw grape dumplings.
Before food was served, artist Michael Jones, Peter’s son, said a prayer for the meal in Seneca.
He is one of eight remaining Seneca speakers in the world.
// Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip. Reach her at email@example.com.
The North American First People’s Day Commemoration was sponsored by The Portage Path Collaborative, which includes:
Dave Lieberth and Leianne Neff Heppner of the The Summit County Historical Society
Sam Chestnut, John Bennett, Matthew G. Russ, Alisa Reinbolt and Brenda Hite of The Lippman School
Megan Shaeffer, Ph.D., a Cultural Resource Specialist with Summit Metro Parks
Francisca B. Ugalde of the Institute for Human Science and Culture at the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron
LaDonna Blue Eye, a member of the Choctaw Nation
Eric Olson of Stewards for Historical Preservation
Tom Crain of Akron Portage and Paddle
Charlotte Gintert of Captured Glimpses Photography