The stewards of this land

CLEVELAND, Ohio – While an official dedication by the Cleveland Federation of Cultural Gardens for the Native American Cultural Garden is still a work in progress, Cynthia Connolly wants to make sure one thing is clear.

“Our garden will be a bit unique because every garden that is part of the Cultural Gardens is on our land,” he says. “This is all indigenous land.”

Some may know Connolly as the director of programming at the City Club of Cleveland. He is also a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of the Odawa Indians located in northern Michigan and the chairman of the council for the Lake Erie Native American Council, which manages this iteration of installing a garden in Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The current space for the garden was blessed during a traditional Native American ceremony in 2012 and is currently in the planning stages.

Among these plans is an attempt to return the site of the acre to the times of “pre-contact” before the European settlers. arrived in Ohio. This will include the use of native Ohio plants and the display of flora and fauna of the Great Lakes region. It also means removing some invasive species that have taken root there.

“We really have to do our best to create a space that really reflects what this land is,” says Connolly. “It will be a tribute to the land, not necessarily to the people.”

However, opportunities will be available to represent the tribes of Northeast Ohio, including the display of modern public art from the community.

The council, also known as LENAC, is awaiting city approval to move forward. But after approval, money is still needed for some of the more ambitious projects. So the schedule for an opening is still to be determined.

The first phase includes the installation of a stone turtle using an existing mount in the ground. Surrounded by natural grasses, the structure is intended to be large enough for children to climb.

“It’s a tip of the hat to the mound builders who were here even before our modern tribal nations,” says Connolly.

This is the eventual location of the Cleveland Native American Cultural Garden, a little over an acre in size, in Martin Luther King Jr. Drive between the Azerbaijan Cultural Garden and St. Clair Ave.

The eventual goal for the garden is to be the site of programming such as ceremonial equinox and solstice events, community picnics and Native American Heritage Month celebrations, which would take place each November. .

“We’re a very small community,” says Connolly, “So it’s really just about making sure we have the ability to complete the project.”

According to the 2020 census, Greater Cleveland is home to approximately 48,000 people who are at least partly “American Indian or Alaska Native.”

What brought Native Americans to the Cleveland area?

While it was small, there were no Indian reservations in Ohio or federally recognized tribes from the beginning of the 20th century. So why is there a population here at all?

The answer lies in the American Indian Urban Relocation Program of the 1950s conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The policy helped volunteers move from their rural tribes to metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle and Cleveland.

This policy is partly why most Native Americans live off reservations.

Before the 20th century, many tribes had moved into this region, Connolly says, including the Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ojibwe.

However, in the modern day, Cleveland is attractive to Native Americans for the same reason that other people often moved there. The industry attracts professionals, with American Indians working in engineering, health and community work. Connolly says this is all the more reason representation is important.

“I don’t think the garden will ever be complete until our garden is complete,” says Connolly. “We are the original stewards of these lands.”

The eventual site for the Native American Cultural Garden can be found at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive between the Azerbaijan Cultural Garden and St. Clair Ave.

Zachary Smith is the data reporter You can reach him at See previous data stories at this link.

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