23 September 2010

A Cultural Rebirth: Duquesne Law Students Assist Native American Organization Returning to Its Roots

By Daniel Craig, Editor-in-Chief
          The Mound Society of Western Pennsylvania, a local Native American historical society, held a ceremonial march in McKees Rocks on Tuesday to celebrate the autumnal equinox and to honor the Native American people who were once laid to rest in the McKees Rocks Mound. The group was incorporated with the assistance of the Duquesne Law School Community Enterprise Clinic earlier this year, and was advised by the Law School’s Bill of Rights Clinic as it worked to gain a permit from the city for the ceremonial march.
          The McKees Rocks Mound, located along the Ohio River adjacent to Rangers Park in the area of the borough known as “the bottoms,” is the largest Native American burial mound in Western Pennsylvania. According to a placard posted in Ranger Park, the mound “was hand built by the Adena people between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. and later was used by the Hopewell people.” It also states that “[l]ate 19th Century excavations uncovered [thirty-three] skeletons and artifacts made of stone, copper, and shells.”
          According to Eugene Strong, a descendant of the Potawatomi tribe and the founder of the Mound Society, earthen material was once extracted from the mound and used to construct many of the roads that run through McKees Rocks today. The march’s route followed many of the roads which the organization’s members believe to contain remains of their Native American ancestors. While the township denied the group’s request to march on the road during business hours, it did agree to allow the group to march on the sidewalk along the roads that contain the remains of ancient Native Americans.
          Roughly thirty of the Mound Society’s members and supporters congregated at Ranger Park around 11 A.M. to prepare for their procession. Mr. Strong, with his face adorned in red and black ceremonial paint, addressed the group before the march commenced in order to articulate the purpose of the event. He made clear that they were gathered for a solemn occasion, to honor their Native American ancestors on the equinox, and that the march was not a protest of any kind. He did acknowledge, however, that the group has much to protest at future gatherings- a fact that became apparent later in the day.
          Mr. Strong and his son, Thor Strong, led the group in chanting while a woman steadily beat a large drum as they all walked slowly along the sidewalks through the township. The reactions of those they passed by were varied. Some mocked the group, some simply stared, and others danced or nodded their heads to the beat of the ongoing chant. Mr. Strong said that any reaction was a good reaction. “At least they know that we are here, and that our ancestors were here long before us,” he said.
          Upon returning to Ranger Park, the group rested and prepared to ascend the mound to build a fire and make a ceremonial offering to the ancestors. Mr. Strong warned newcomers that the climb to the top of the mound is an arduous one. Many of the Mound Society’s members are older individuals who can no longer reach the top of the mound. This unfortunate circumstance is a recent development. The side of the mound opposite Ranger Park, situated between the mound and the Ohio River, is far more accessible and was the group’s preferred route for some time. However, two different industrial corporations; Gordon Terminal Service, an oil lubricating company, and Lane Construction, a concrete plant; own the land on which the easiest path to the top of the mound lies. The companies refuse to allow the Mound Society to traverse the property as a means of reaching the top of the mound.
          Atop the burial mound runs a fence that prevents access to the mound from the side facing the Ohio River. Piles of gravel and coal and barrels of oil line the river bank along the burial mound. A crane pulls gravel from the river bottom. Mr. Strong contends that the companies have also removed material from the mound and that, if one were to examine the piles of earth heaped upon the companies’ property, the amount of artifacts that would be uncovered would be astounding. He says that the industrial development along the mound was modest until he and his organization began gaining some recognition. “As soon as we appeared in the newspapers and made our intentions known,” he said, “the companies began developing the land full tilt.”
          Mr. Strong asked everyone ascending the mound with him to collect a piece of dry, dead wood as they walked to the site where they would hold the equinox ceremony. Upon reaching the designated location, he gathered the wood and built a small fire. Those in attendance then took turns placing a pinch of tobacco and small branch of cedar into the fire as an offering to the ancestors.
          Mike Sallows, whose Native American name, Waoka Hetchtualoh, means “good hunter, indeed it is true,” is a descendant of an Iroquois tribe, and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He took a moment while atop the mound to reflect on its importance to the Mound Society and to the preservation of Native American culture. “Eugene and I and a core group of us come here regularly,” he said. “This is our place of worship.” He continued, “What Eugene and others are doing here is important because it increases the humanity of all people, not just native people. It is important because the same scenario that is occurring here is taking place worldwide,” he said. “People need to understand that we are people, and we can’t just be run over for the sake of development.”
          Sallows’ mother was raised on an old Pennsylvania Seneca reservation along the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania. However, in 1960, the federal government began construction of the Kinzua Dam, which led to the flooding of the reservation. Most of the tribe relocated to Salamanca, New York, but Sallow’s mother ended up near Pittsburgh. Sallows recalls a time when his mother brought him to visit Kinzou Lake, which is also known as the Allegheny Reservoir. “There was a look in her eyes that I had never seen before,” he said. She pointed to the center of the lake and said, ‘That is where our home used to be.’”
          The most striking aspect of the days events was the strong sense of community shared by all of the Mound Society’s members, even those unfamiliar with one another. Shortly after speaking about his mother’s struggle, Sallows was approached by a man who wore his hair long and was dressed in a fringed poncho. The man recognized Sallows from a prior event, but the two had not formally met. When they discovered that they were both descendants of tribes from the Iroquois Nation, they embraced and said to one another, quietly, “Brother.”
          There are a lot of us here in this region,” the man said, “but fewer of us who see the world through native eyes and truly understand the culture- the way of life.”
            It’s the only way there is to live,” responded Sallows. “If you don’t, you aren’t really living.”
          When the ceremony concluded, those in attendance descended the mound and gathered at its base to form a drum circle. They chanted to the beat of the drums while the afternoon wore on, as they had done during the march. A celebration of the changing of the season is fitting for the members of this young organization seeking to revive the culture of their ancestors. As they enter the fall season and prepare for the death that comes with the winter, they remember the dead that came before them and lament the destruction of their rich cultural tradition. However, they look forward to the rebirth of spring, and the cultural resurgence that they hope will grow from their efforts during these early years of the Mound Society’s existence.

Daniel Craig is the Editor-in-Chief of Juris. He is also a member of the Public Interest Law Association and is the President and Co-Founder of Pittsburgh Environmental Action for Kids (PEAK), a youth environmental education organization. Daniel received his undergraduate degree in English from The Ohio State University, graduating cum laude in 2008 and will graduate from Duquesne Law School in June of 2011. He can be reached at dcraig201@gmail.com.