Landscape Photographs Show Native American Historic Sites

“It’s definitely changed how I view the landscape, and my understanding of the history of this country is much richer than it ever was. And for that, I’m thankful.” —Michael Sherwin

Posted on July 25, 2021, at 11:30 a.m. ET

Michael Sherwin

John Wayne Point, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, NM

Almost a decade ago, Michael Sherwin, an associate professor of art at West Virginia University, discovered that a shopping center was being built on a Monongahela burial ground in his then-hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. The realization shook him deeply and prompted a yearslong exploration of what happened to other Native American sites of sacred and historical importance across the country.

“The Suncrest Town Center is a really banal, anywhere-in-consumer-America kind of a site. It’s just a generic shopping mall with a grocery store, etc. And yet it held — and it still holds — this whole other spiritual importance to the Monongahela culture,” Sherwin said when talking about the origins of this project with BuzzFeed News. “Once you have the knowledge and the understanding of previous inhabitants and the importance of it, you can’t help but recognize that within the site. It really transformed the way I was looking at that landscape.”

His work is being published in a new book, Vanishing Points, which challenges the idea that history is ever fully decided with large-format photographs that look critically at seemingly familiar American landscapes.

Michael Sherwin

Suncrest Towne Centre, Morgantown, WV

Suncrest Towne Centre is a strip mall that sits on a former Monongahelan burial ground and village site in Morgantown, West Virginia. Initially, Walmart owned a lease for the land but backed out when they learned it was an ancient Native American burial ground. The land was donated to West Virginia University to be used as an archaeological site. However, WVU sold the land to a development company that eventually excavated the site and shipped the remains to the Seneca tribe in New York, the Monongahelan culture’s traditional enemy.

“He takes me to the place by creating this beautiful photograph,” said Bonnie Brown, the director of Native American studies at West Virginia University who helped Sherwin research the book. “And then he makes me think about, what is permanent, what has not vanished, who were the other people who have enjoyed this very same vista?”

Sherwin, who is white, acknowledges that it’s complicated for him to present the overlapping layers of history of Indigenous cultures. Working with Brown and archaeologists, Sherwin took care to work only on sites that were already accessible to the broader public to explore how Native history was being distorted or ignored. He struggled with questions of complicity over the course of his research, which led him to many sites that were practically in his backyard.

“Even though I am a white male without this ancestry, I feel like it’s important that I recognize that and that I talk about that in the work,” he said. “I hope that the photograph ultimately builds awareness about these issues, and the importance of these sacred sites.”

In documenting well over 100 sites across the US, Sherwin did not collaborate with local tribes on his project, seeing it more as a personal quest to reconnect with the land.

He had one particularly meaningful moment at Medicine Wheel, an ancient sacred site in a region that has been inhabited for thousands of years within what is now Bighorn National Park in Wyoming. Medicine Wheel is a rolling limestone plateau that aligns with constellations at certain times of the year. It is still used for ceremonies by numerous tribes, and the landmark boundaries were greatly enlarged after tribal consultation to include over 100 smaller wheels across the surrounding landscape. Sherwin references his experience with a single photograph that pays homage to Red Cloud, an important historical Oglala Lakota leader.

Michael Sherwin

Eagle Feather, Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, Bighorn National Forest, WY

“Some tribes would forbid such a book being written, especially by non-Natives, since it deals with sacred sites, such as the Medicine Wheel,” said Joshua Mann, the tribal preservation officer for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in Wyoming. “I know some tribes would consider that disrespectful.”

Mann’s job as a tribal preservation officer is to ensure that the interests of the tribe are represented in land use projects and that there is a point of contact to consult when artifacts or remains are found. Created in 1990 by Congress and the National Parks Service, the role of a tribal preservation officer is a relatively new one, but is seen as crucial to the preservation of Native culture.

“Everything is still active,” Mann said. “With this job, now we can at least acknowledge the past existence and classify areas of being sacred, and they can still be utilized by our tribe.”

Sherwin also urges people to learn about and support organizations that seek to protect Native American sites and cultural history.

“Some of the photographs in this series were made on the lands of sovereign Native nations,” he wrote both in his book and online. “Many of the other photographs were made on Indigenous lands that were ceded to, seized, or stolen by the United States government through treaty and federal statute.”

Michael Sherwin

Shrum Mound, Columbus, OH

One of the last remaining ancient conical burial mounds in the city of Columbus, Ohio, Shrum Mound was constructed about 2,000 years ago by the Adena people.

The mound is named after the Shrum family, who owned a farm where it was located. Currently, the mound sits in a 1-acre park surrounded by a busy highway, privacy fences, an old limestone quarry, and a modern townhome development. From the top, you can see the city skyline 8 miles away. Burial mounds like this dot the landscape of Ohio, although many have been destroyed by agriculture and development.

Michael Sherwin

Stockade Wall, Fort Phil Kearney State Historic Site, Banner, WY

Fort Phil Kearny was an outpost of the US Army that existed in the late 1860s in present-day northeastern Wyoming along the Bozeman Trail. The fort’s 8-foot-high walls covered over 17 acres of Native land, the largest stockade fort in the West. Bitter from decades of forced removal and broken treaties, and opposing the invasion of their hunting grounds, the Sioux attacked the fort. When the Sioux finally triumphed, the fort was evacuated in 1868. It was one of the few instances during the Indian Wars when the US Army was forced to abandon a region it had occupied.

Michael Sherwin

Mural, Point Pleasant Riverfront Park, WV

The small town of Point Pleasant was the site of the Battle of Point Pleasant, where over 1,000 Virginia militiamen defeated a force of the Algonquin confederation’s Shawnee and Mingo warriors, led by Shawnee Chief Cornstalk, in 1774. As a result of the victory, the Indians lost the right to hunt in the area and agreed to recognize the Ohio River as the boundary between their lands and the British colonies.

Michael Sherwin

Antelope House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ

Michael Sherwin

Laundry, Indian Mound Campground, New Marshfield, OH

Michael Sherwin

George Washington, Black Hills National Forest, Keystone, SD

Michael Sherwin

Wild Horses and Road, Crow Indian Reservation, MT