Kentucky Native Americans built ceremonial mounds that have been part of the landscape for thousands of years; Stanford celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day; take in the scenery, the history, and the bowfishing along the Kentucky River at Blue Wing Landing; and scratchboard artist Kathy Conroy creates lifelike animal portraits in Pleasureville.
Woodland Native Americans
Thousands of years ago, the region that is now central and northern Kentucky was populated by the Adena and Hopewell people. These Native Americans created ceremonial mounds that can still be seen around the area to this day.
The Woodland period spans from approximately 1000 BCE through European contact in North America.
“The early woodland period is the time we associate with the Adena people,” says Michael Striker, archaeology practice leader at Gray and Pape. “The middle woodland is both Adena and Hopewell. The Woodland Indians lived in what archaeologists call hamlets. This is a settlement of one, or maybe two or three houses, each of these housed a nuclear family.”
Striker explains that the Woodland people hunted and did some gardening for sustenance. In the early and middle Woodland period, before the development of the bow and arrow, they hunted using a tool called an atlatl.
“[The atlatl functioned] as a lever that gives you a lot more force behind your throw,” says Striker. “Your spear goes farther with more force and is more likely to bring down prey. With an atlatl, you need to hunt in groups. You need to be able to ambush deer and drive them.”
Through discovered artifacts, archaeologists have been able to determine that the people of the Woodland period had woven fabrics and made pottery for storage and cooking. They had a trade network with other indigenous peoples ranging from the northern parts of the continent all the way to the American southwest.
One of the practices that distinguishes the Woodland peoples are the earthworks, or embankments, they left behind.
“These folks would have been excavating ditches, and then throwing the soil out to create the embankment,” says Eric Schlarb, an archaeologist with the Kentucky Archaeology Survey. “The purpose of the earthworks was probably to demarcate sacred areas and there were probably sacred ceremonies that took place within those earthworks. Through archaeological excavation, we find very few artifacts in these earthworks, so we know that the Adena and the Hopewell people that built these earthworks were keeping those spaces clean.”
Some of the landscape alterations left by the Woodland people are burial mounds.
“These are ceremonial structures,” says Striker. “Sometimes we find things that look like buildings or some kind of enclosure for a ceremony and the mounds are built over the top of them. Every mound is different. Some mounds have cremations in them. Some of them have burials that were placed on the surface of the ground and then covered over. Some of them have burials that were redeposited from other places. A mound wasn’t built all at one time. Each burial was added over time and with each burial, the mound grew.”
Today, Kentuckians and Ohioans can see earthworks at several locations, including Adena Park in Fayette County, Fort Ancient in Oregonia, Ohio, the Miamisburg Mound in Miamisburg, Ohio, and even on the grounds of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport in Boone County.
One of the most distinctive earthworks is Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio.
“We can definitively say that the site of serpent mound was important to Woodland people because they were already building burial mounds there and coming back to it,” says Eric Collins, assistant curator, Allen County Ohio Museum and Historical Society. “Who actually built the serpent on this site is still up for debate.”
“The Adena burial mounds that dot our landscape today are monuments to the dead that people built thousands of years ago,” says Schlarb. “Those monuments were meant to last. Just like a modern cemetery, it’s a venerated area and it is not to be disturbed. These are sacred places and there are laws that protect them. Just as we respect our grandmothers and our grandfathers and our family, we should show the same respect to the Native Americans that placed their dead in these burial mounds.”
Indigenous Peoples Day in Stanford
Throughout the United States, communities celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October every year. The Kentucky town of Stanford is one of the most recent to declare the day an official holiday.
The recognition is the result of efforts by individuals in the commonwealth, including the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission.
“We’re part of an independent commission underneath a state agency,” says commissioner Bill St. Pierre. “We’re all volunteers in this work celebrating the history and culture of American Indian peoples in Kentucky.”
The day coincides with Columbus Day, a national holiday that marks the day Christopher Columbus’s expedition landed in the Americas.
“What we’re trying to do is really balance the discussion,” says commissioner Angela Arnett Garner. “It’s important to discuss Christopher Columbus’s role in our history and colonialism and European exploration, but it’s also important to honor Native American history and culture.”
Stanford is the first municipality in Kentucky to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. The day was marked by a celebration that included speakers and a live Native American music performance.
“There are over 560 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States,” says St. Pierre. “Today they contribute to the music and arts and culture of our great country. When Columbus discovered the new world, he was discovered by indigenous people. There’s a history that speaks to the treaties made, the land that was confiscated, the land that was settled. We want to celebrate, recognize and honor the Native American people that have made this country as great as it is.”
Blue Wing Landing
In Owen County, Blue Wing Landing provides 240 acres where visitors can immerse themselves in the outdoors.
“We have miles of trails, we have kayaks and paddleboards for customers to use as they will go down on the Kentucky River,” says Douglas Martin, co-owner of Blue Wing Landing. “Out here you’re not going to find much other than the crickets and the frogs.”
But visitors will find fish and wildlife if they choose to go on a guided hunting or fishing tour. Doug’s son, Will, manages Blue Wing Landing Outfitters. The bowfishing expeditions give a new challenge for even experienced anglers.
“It’s very much a family business,” says co-owner Kathleen Martin. “Our son Will owns and operates the outfitter part of the business. He does guided hunting trips for turkey and deer during the winter and then he does the guided fishing and bowfishing trips.”
Kathleen says bowfishing is an activity that anyone can enjoy.
“I love it,” she says. “They took me on a trip four or five years ago and I got hooked immediately. I went and took my birthday money and bought my own bow. I am all in. I absolutely love that sport.”
Besides the natural beauty, Blue Wing Landing’s location has historical significance, too, and the Martins take pride in preserving that history. Doug explains that the historic home was built in 1850 by Mason Brown, son of Kentucky’s first senator, John Brown.
“John Brown bought the property earlier, back in the late 1700s through the Virginia Land Company,” he says. “Kentucky wasn’t even a state at that time.”
The house, now an inn, maintains its historical design today.
“It has all the modern conveniences,” says Doug. “We have heating and air conditioning. We’ve redone all the plumbing. But the actual window sizes, ceiling heights…all of that stuff has been maintained.”
Blue Wing Landing’s peaceful location along the Kentucky River has also remained a quiet retreat, even in the modern era.
“We wanted families to be able to come and experience the same things our boys were able to experience while they’re here,” says Kathleen. “We wanted them to disconnect with their computers and their phones, reconnect with each other and get outside and see what nature can offer.”
Kathy Conroy’s artwork is distinctive, detailed, and beautiful. But her career as an artist had an inauspicious start
“I’d always wanted to be an artist,” she says. “Years ago, you would find in a magazine a turtle drawing and it would say ‘Draw Skippy’ or something like that. Send it in, we might send you to art school. When I was a kid, I would look for those things in magazines.”
Those ads didn’t lead directly to art school, but Conroy was undeterred, learning a variety of media from watercolors to oils by reading books and teaching herself.
“When my youngest daughter was in high school, I went back to school,” she says. “I got my degree in graphic arts. I went to ACA College of Design which is now called The Art Institute of Cincinnati. We did a two-week course on scratchboard, and I fell in love with it that instant. Now I’m strictly scratchboard.”
There are two types of surfaces under the scratchboard umbrella: scratchboard and clayboard.
“[In] scratchboard, there’s a Masonite board and on top of that there’s a very thin layer of white kaolin clay. On top of that is a spray-painted layer of black India ink,” she explains. “When I’m scratching, I’m scratching down to the clay level. My main tool is a surgical scalpel blade. You can also use tattoo needles. The tattoo needles have four tiny needles at the end, so when you scratch with them, it gives you a very soft look.
“The clayboard is just the Masonite board with the white clay on top,” Conway continues. “It doesn’t have any black on it, so I paint the background.” Conway uses a sea sponge dipped in ink to build up thin layers until she has created the background she wants for her next piece.
Conroy says that few artists focus on scratchboard, but it’s a medium that suits her subjects well. Much of her work depicts furry and feathered creatures, from house pets to wildlife. The fine detail of scratchboard allows her to bring out the texture of every hair, whether it’s the coarse mane of a horse or the fine fuzz on a cat’s ear.
“Birds are my favorite,” Conroy says. “The details that you can get with the feathers are just amazing. Same with the fur. I literally do every little piece of hair one scratch at a time with the scalpel. That’s what I love about it.”
Conroy does commissions, often scratching portraits of dogs, cats, and horses. Much of her wildlife work comes from her own photography.
“She loves nature. She’s a naturalist,” says Gwen Heffner, information specialist and curator at the Kentucky Artisan Center. “She’s also a photographer, so her works are very realistic. She really knows her subjects well.”
“Most people haven’t seen scratchboard before, so when I describe to them that I’m doing each little hair with a scalpel blade, they just can’t believe it,” says Conroy. “Just seeing the pieces on the wall, finished, it’s hard to imagine doing each one of those one little hair at a time. The thing that I love about scratchboard is that I’m taking just a plain board and taking every little detail and to make it into something that I hope somebody will love.”