Ancient Indian burial mound in the Rocks?
Eugene Strong, director of the Mound Society of Western Pennsylvania, sings and drums at the Indian burial mound in McKees Rocks, the largest such mound found in the state. His face is painted in Pottawatomi colors in honor and respect for the dead. The mound was partially excavated in 1896, but Mr. Strong and his group believe that bones of the Adena Indians still remain there.
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Ask Eugene Strong what he does for a living and he'll tell you he's an artist -- airbrushing, tanning hides and making drums.
And one more thing: "I raise hell," he says -- a wide smile enveloping the bottom portion of his red-and-black ceremonially painted face.
Mr. Strong is standing at the base of the McKees Rocks Indian burial mound, abutting a playground and baseball field in "the Bottoms" neighborhood of McKees Rocks.
The mound was partially excavated in 1896, when an Andrew Carnegie-commissioned expedition unearthed bones from at least 33 bodies buried in the mound, as well as numerous artifacts from the Adena people who lived thousands of years ago. The bones were on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History until the 1960s; the museum has no plans to display the remains.
Mr. Strong, 58, of Clinton, would like to return those bones to the McKees Rocks burial mound, eventually turning the mound site into a national park or world heritage site.
Whether any of the mound still exists, whether there are still bodies buried there and whether it is possible to return the bones taken in 1896 to the mound are all under dispute by Mr. Strong and government and museum officials.
What is indisputable is that he'll raise hell in the process.
The Mound Society of Western Pennsylvania, a group founded by Mr. Strong, held a protest march several weeks ago outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History demanding the return of the bones unearthed in the 1896 excavation. The march drew just half a dozen protestors but received ample news coverage.
He plans a march and demonstration at the mound on Sept. 21, complete with Native American musical performances.
Mr. Strong's grandfather was a Pottawatomi Indian, raised on a reservation in Michigan. For public and ceremonial events, he paints his face with the red and black of the Pottawatomi Indians and wears a shirt adorned with symbolic red and black ribbons.
Both Mr. Strong and officials from the state and the Carnegie Museum believe that the mound is historically and culturally important.
"It's the largest mound that was actually found in Pennsylvania," said Mark McConaughy, regional archeologist for the state museum commission. "It certainly is of significance."
A state historical marker at the site of the mound pronounces it as being built by the Adena people between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. and as being 16 feet high and 85 feet wide.
The mound was used as a burial site for important people in the Adena society, said Mr. McConaughy, as well as for later burials for the Hopewell and Monongahela tribes.
According to Mr. McConaughy, all bodies were removed from the mound either in the 1896 excavation or in subsequent construction that removed the mound entirely.
Mr. Strong and a small cadre of supporters, however, believe that the mound is actually miles wide, encompassing much of McKees Rocks and still holding thousands of bodies.
"He's wrong," said Mr. McConaughy, who has studied the mound for years and walked it as recently as 2008. "The mound's gone. It's 100 percent gone."
The Rev. Mark Gruber, a former professor of anthropology at Saint Vincent College and a board member of the Mound Society, isn't so sure. Like Mr. Strong, he takes stock in an 1896 address by archeologist Frederick Putnam estimating 500 to 1,000 human burials at the site.
"I cannot prove Putnam is correct," said Father Gruber, who has published academic research on West Coast Indian burial mounds. "But he observed the site nearer to its only significant excavation."
Father Gruber believes that the site should undergo a thorough Cultural Resource Management investigation to resolve questions about the mound's size, age and origin. Such an endeavor would likely require securing funding to hire a private firm.
"If I am wrong, McKees Rocks can sleep better at night knowing that they have not colluded in the destruction of one of the continent's great cultural monuments," said Father Gruber in an e-mail message. "If I am right, then great efforts can be made now to preserve what remains in McKees Rocks, to deepen our appreciation of our own remarkable regional heritage, and to restore human respect to a community under our feet and overlooking our city from its ancient bluff."
The site was once scouted by George Washington as a possible place for a fort. In 1924, a Pennsylvania congressman unsuccessfully introduced legislation to turn the 19-acre piece of land into a national park.
Mr. Strong became aware of the McKees Rocks burial mound four years ago, and officially incorporated the Mound Society this year with help from the Duquesne University School of Law's legal clinic.
For more than a year, he says, he has been trying to retrieve the excavated bones from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
The problem, says the museum, is that he's going about it wrong.
"For the museum to be in compliance with federal regulations, we have to have a formal, written request from a tribe recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs before we can even begin to review it," said Leigh Kish, media relations manager.
The return of Native American artifacts is governed by a 1990 federal law that specifies that museums work with tribal governments -- and not individuals -- to place items in their collections, said Sherry Hutt, national program manager for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Items that have not been tied to a specific tribe, or group of tribes, are on an online database available to tribes that might want to make a claim for those artifacts. If the museum determines a tribe that requests the remains is indeed "culturally affiliated," it would work to facilitate a transfer of ownership, said Dr. Hutt.
On that database, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History lists the 1896 find from the McKees Rocks mound as containing human remains from at least 39 individuals (the marker at the site says 33), as well as numerous artifacts, including an axe, a wooden bear claw and more than 100 pearl beads.
Mr. Strong said that he only recently found out the proper procedure for requesting the remains. He said that he is working with the Gun Lake Tribe of the Pottawatomi Indians in Michigan and that an official letter is in the works.
Officials with the Gun Lake Tribe did not return calls for comment.
Mr. McConaughy believes that even with a letter, the Pottawatomi tribe is not close enough geographically to be considered culturally affiliated, while Mr. Strong argues that the Adena are the ancestors of numerous Indian tribes.
Mr. Strong is also proceeding with efforts to secure the land that he believes encompasses the mound, part of which is owned by McKees Rocks Borough and part of which is owned by Gordon Terminal Service oil company and the Lane Construction Corp. concrete plant.
"I know my place and it's here," said Mr. Strong. "This is what I've devoted my life to."
First Published August 7, 2010 12:00 am