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Phil Gulley: Getting A Handle

An ancient Native American ax sharpened my thinking on Indiana’s history—and future.

A while back, a Parke County farmer walking through his field near the Wabash River kicked at a rock, noticed its unusual appearance, and reached down to pick up what turned out to be an ax from the late Archaic to early Woodland period, some 5,000 years ago. He sold the artifact to a collector in Ohio, who recently passed it on to me. Until I was given the ax, the oldest handcrafted object in our house was a blanket chest from the 1780s, on which I pile my dirty clothes until my wife tells me they belong in the hamper.

European settlers arrived in Western Indiana in the first decade of the 1700s. On hand to greet them were members of the Myaamia tribe, known today as the Miami Nation of Indiana, which is still not recognized as an official tribe by the federal government. (It’s much easier to steal someone’s land when you don’t acknowledge their existence.) The Miami Nation was preceded by earlier indigenous civilizations, among whom dwelled an artisan who chipped away at a chunk of granite to form my ax. There are no nicks or gashes on the sharpened blade, so it was likely used for ceremonial purposes, or so the collector told me.

A 5,000-year-old ax puts other claims of antiquity in perspective. Every Thursday, The Republican newspaper, serving Hendricks County since 1847, arrives in my mailbox. I always turn to page two first, where I read the Yester-Year column, dredged from the back issues of The Republican that Betty Bartley keeps stacked in the back room. In 1894, S.B. Dickenson of Danville sold 498 gallons of strawberries. Also that year, John Craig, weighing nearly 700 pounds and believed to be the heaviest man in the United States, passed away in Danville and was buried in what is believed to be the largest casket in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Two counties to the west, the ax lay undisturbed in the Genesee silt loam, not yet heaved to the surface by winter frosts. Nothing ever happens that doesn’t eventually involve dirt.

When I hear the word “artifact,” I think of Egypt or Rome, not Parke County, even though my ax predates Jesus, and in all likelihood King David and Moses. Since acquiring it, I can’t help but wonder what else molders beneath our Indiana feet, what other treasures we might discover if our appreciation for history included pasts other than our own. It wasn’t uncommon when I was growing up to hear how fortunate the “Indians” were that we white people came and taught them about Jesus. It never occurred to us that their religion had been around a lot longer than our own, serving them perfectly well.

Hoosier farmers, more than any other group, have opened this door to the past. When my mother-in-law Ruby was living, she talked about the old canning jar filled with arrowheads that my father-in-law had collected while walking their fields. She couldn’t remember what became of them, whether they were given to someone, or stashed in one of the eight outbuildings on the property. I searched high and low and couldn’t find them, so I phoned my brother-in-law Jack, the family historian, who told me he had mounted the arrowheads on a board for a high school project in the late 1950s and now had them hanging in his home. I bet the Native Americans who made them never dreamed they would end up on someone’s wall, but that seems to be the inevitable end of most implements of death. A friend of mine has a Civil War sword displayed in his office. If this odd trend continues, thousands of years from now people will be mounting nuclear warheads over their sofas.

There has never been, and never will be, a picture of me in The Republican finding anything.

The advantage of nuclear warheads is that they’re much easier to spot than arrowheads. I’ve spent countless hours in fields searching for artifacts without ever finding a thing, while those with me found arrowheads, spear points, axes, and even entire teepees I had overlooked. It’s the same with morel mushrooms. My friend Ray can fill a five-gallon bucket with morels in just a few minutes, while I search in vain for days at a time. We know it’s spring in Danville when Betty at The Republican runs a picture of Ray grinning and holding a morel he spotted while buzzing down I-65 at 70 miles per hour. There has never been, and will never be, a picture of me in The Republican finding anything.

This time of year, after the summer growth has withered and the ticks have died back, I walk through our woods to Young’s Creek, the sycamore-lined remnant of a once-mighty river that formed our valley. I sit on a mossy rock as big as a car, and think of the people who lived here when King Tut was ruling Egypt, the folks who made the arrowheads my father-in-law would later find. Though our lives are markedly different, our pursuits were, and are, the same—the acquisition of food, the need for shelter, the desire for security. Like me, they loved their children and grandchildren, mourned the deaths of friends and family, and sat on the same mossy rocks along the creek watching a bald eagle work the shallows for the slow, inattentive fish. Unlike me, they lived so lightly upon the land that the only traces they left were exquisitely carved axes and arrowheads. When we’re no longer here, when Earth must do without our particular tribe, we’ll leave behind a smorgasbord of remnants for future beings to study. I wish I could be here to see what they make of Mount Rushmore or the Hoover Dam or the Airstream trailer that has been sitting in my neighbor’s yard since the early 1970s.

I’m not sure what will be the death of us. Scientists tell us Earth has experienced five mass extinctions, and that a sixth one is all but inevitable. We’ll either kill one another with nuclear weapons, be smacked with a giant asteroid, or die of mass starvation caused by climate change. I’m pulling for the asteroid, that being the one thing not produced by human stupidity. Regardless, everything I own will rot away, except for my stone ax. I suppose I could get a grave marker and have it installed at Mill Creek Cemetery beside the old Quaker meetinghouse southwest of town, but since there won’t be anyone alive to read it, that seems wasteful. Instead, I trust that millions of years from now, a single-cell organism will divide, grow, and eventually emerge from a swamp and evolve into a complex life-form capable of thought. If the past is prologue, as Shakespeare believed, that individual will find my ax just before Earth faces its seventh extinction. I have no idea what they’ll do with it. Right now, it’s sitting on the fireplace hearth in our kitchen. If they want to put it somewhere else, that’s their business, not mine.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.

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