Atop Native American Sites, Modern Life Rolls On
Tracing ancient America beneath contemporary landscapes was a spiritual awakening for photographer Michael Sherwin
Remember your elementary school classes on 19th-century American history? We were told a simplistic story, about a westward expansion so explosive and unstoppable that to people of the time it seemed obvious that destiny had offered up the continent for the taking. From here teachers often moved on.
Left largely unexamined are the systematic dismantling of rich and complex indigenous cultures, the wave after wave of genocidal incursions and displacement that set the stage for the United States as we know it. Many Americans go without any meaningful sense that entire societies once lived, worked, and played where we now do. Signs of those societies remain, though, if interrupted by our own society’s developments. Photographer Michael Sherwin is documenting those intersections.
As the new world rolls forward, Sherwin draws our attention back to places where parks and parking lots straddle ancient burial grounds. Houses and strip malls sit at the sites of bygone villages and epic hunts. Even in these places of such history and significance, today it’s hard to see anything there but the visage of typical American life.
Without knowing a photograph’s backstory, you might never know that what you’re looking at was once the most important place to another people. The vision of burial mounds disappearing next to freeways suggests how the landscape of former Native American life figures into the modern American map and mentality.
Vanishing Points is a reminder of the impermanence of even mighty societies. It also begs the question of if, or perhaps how, our own contemporary existence will itself fade into the landscape.
After moving to West Virginia in 2007, Sherwin noticed a series of protests being held at an intersection near his home. Wal-Mart had held a lease for land in which native bones and artifacts had been unearthed. The big box behemoth (uncharacteristically) decided not to develop on the parcel, and backed out of the deal. The land had been donated originally to the University of West Virginia, who after Wal-Mart’s drop-out moved to sell the land to a local developer, who quickly began construction of a new mega mall, the Suncrest Town Center. Hence the protests.
“It was a Monogahela tribe sacred burial and village site, and it could’ve been this incredible archaeological site for the university,” says Sherwin. “Essentially, it was sacred land, and ‘Anywhere-Ugly-America Town Center’ was built on top of it.”
Shortly after the University of West Virginia sold the burial site, Sherwin began his project to document the sites of indigenous significance that are too quickly fading from cultural memory. In reaching out to as many researchers, archaeologists, and historians as he could, Sherwin learned that he was surrounded by highly significant sites.
The beginning of the work represented a turning point of sorts for Sherwin, who like many of us had never really connected the ‘now’ and not-so-distant but very real ‘then’ of our shared landscape. Vanishing Points has also been cause for a spiritual experience, a connection to the depth of meaning held within the American landscape, often untapped.
“It’s been a real learning experience, I can almost equate it to a pilgrimage for me to visit these sites and discover that this land that I grew up in was at one point deemed sacred,” Sherwin says.
Years prior, Sherwin had left Ohio. He’d become uninterested in its landscape, drawn instead to the mythology of the country’s west.
“Ohio had nothing to offer me,” Sherwin says. “I wanted wilderness, and open spaces of the West, but when I returned and I started working on Vanishing Points, I rediscovered Ohio and West Virginia and these areas that I grew up being kind of fond of, but never thinking much of them in terms of any sort of sanctity.”
Many of the sites in his images are burial mounds, a tradition not unique to native Americans but widely practiced among various tribes. The practice underscores a profound sense of connection to the landscape.
With the advance of settlers and railroads, the ruling elite’s holdings in land and resources grew. Lives that weren’t destroyed by military and settler-led land-grabs were erased by the devastating spread of diseases new to native immune systems. Abundant and complex indigenous civilizations were progressively and often deliberately wiped out and relocated. From the original colonies to California, the establishment of ownership brought the gradual erasure of a millennia worth of culture.
The magnitude of what was lost is difficult to overstate. Modern American society was preceded by an apocalypse for another.
N0wadays, the peaceful winding of a river that once sustained a community belies the horrendous violence that removed it. For the visitor, these places sustain a sense of weight, a spiritual heft. Sherwin’s photos somehow convey it.
“When I visit these sites I feel like there’s a presence there, even if it’s not obvious — a lingering, spiritual presence. Maybe that’s just me projecting it onto these places? But the fact that at one point it was a spiritual place,” he says. “There’s a persistence to the landscape that fascinates me.”
“Anyone who has any sense of spirituality, I think, or connection to the land in general, can’t help but be moved at these sites, no matter how crowded or congested they are with our own civilization,” Sherwin says.
Sherwin’s images are not meant to establish a point of view as much as to invite us to take a look at a place that warrants much meditation. Along with the difficult history these lands hosted, the various ways in which they carry significance, there are implicit questions of our current relationship to the environment, of our place on it today.
Something else that’s implicit in the images is beauty. It’s no wonder the colonial newcomers to this country had such a lust for more of it. Its previous inhabitants recognized — by necessity — their absolute reliance and interconnectedness with nature. The reality is no different for us, though often we fail to see that.
In a parallel project — Artifacts — Sherwin documents objects picked up from the ground at the sites in Vanishing Points. These are beautiful documents of the terrible habits of our own culture, evidence of the low regard in which we hold these landscapes. Together the projects lament the fact that the most meaningful aspects of these places are virtually invisible — the present and visible traces being our trash and discarded consumables.
“I definitely think as the work progressed it became more of a statement and less of a document, but it still exists in both ways — I want it to retain a relatively neutral stance.” says Sherwin.
For Sherwin, Vanishing Points and Artifacts are as much personal meditation as they are polemic.
“I recognize the fact that I’m complicit in this idea of Manifest Destiny and that the only reason I’m here is because of my ancestors. This project is not only a way to reconnect with landscape and this history of these landscapes, but it’s also a way for me — and photography has always been a way for me — to work through issues that are troubling or conflicting. I shop at Suncrest Town Center. I am part of this culture that relies on things that neglect the importance of these places.”
In time, Sherwin hopes to extend the project to the reservation system that dots the American landscape, but that presents various challenges in the form of access and logistics, and in terms of cultural and journalistic ethics. The intersection of indigenous culture with the one that supplanted it remains a fraught one.