by Angela Gartner, Staff Writer
On September 21, seven student members of the SVC Anthropology Club visited McKees Rocks in Pittsburgh, where the largest Native American burial mound remains today. The event took place right on the ancient burial mound, which once belonged to the Adena tribe and is now threatened by the development of the borough, as well as two corporations that each own significant portions of the mound. Rangers Field owns the southwest edge; Lane Construction Corp., the northeast side; and Gordon Terminal Services Co., another 15 acres. While at the burial site, students participated in traditional ceremonies to honor dead ancestors buried in the mound and to celebrate and advocate the preservation of a historical Native American tradition.
Dr. Bennett, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, provided background information about the McKees Rocks Mound, as well as details of the rally. Burial-mound building originally developed among Indians during the Adena cultural era (ca. 1200 BC – 100 A.D) and continued into the Hopewell and Mississippian Eras. At the McKees Rock burial site, the lower layers of the mound were largely a part of the Adena culture, and the upper layers apart of the Middle Woodland Hopewell culture. The mound is located approximately four miles south of Pittsburgh at the confluence of Chartiers Creek and the Ohio River; the location was important for the people, as it was near the Ohio River Valley, an important trade route during this period.
“One of the most interesting things about the mound [is that] it contains material, from all over the New World,” said Bennett. She noted that excavated shells were from the Pacific coast. The mound was predominantly a burial site for the tribes who settled along the Ohio River Valley, and each generation of burials increased the size of the mound. Although there are some discrepancies with the exact dimensions of the mound, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania measured the mound at 85 ft. in diameter and 16 ft. high. Dr. Bennett noted, “[The original size] of the mound might have been 160 ft. tall and 85 ft. long.” Especially apparent in the 1700s, settlers’ agricultural practices significantly decreased the size of these sacred burial mounds.
Frank M. Gerrodette of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History initially excavated the mound in 1896 and exhumed hundreds of Mesoamerican artifacts including shells and copper pellets, as well as 33 bodies. Eugene Strong, founder of the Mound Society of Western Pennsylvania, is pressing for the reburial of these remains, which have been kept in the Carnegie Museum since the excavation in the 1890s.
Today, only a remnant of the mound has survived, and many archeologists and students have developed an interest in the preservation of this valuable piece of Native American history.
Bennett commented, “[The mound] is not only significant in terms of Native American history, but also in Pittsburgh history.” She also noted that during Pittsburgh’s Gilded Age, residents living around the burial site used to have parties and picnics on top of the mound; many children enjoyed climbing the dome-shape and trading fragments of unearthed artifacts.
“Little has been done to preserve the mound,” said Bennett. Rallies and walks such as the September 21st event can make a significant difference in generating a general awareness of the diminishing presence of the Native American culture in the area. At the event, students participated in a ceremonial fire and listened to native drumming. Strong, the figurehead of the preservation movement, attended the event dressed as a Native American, wearing both native clothing and face paint. Rachel Horne, junior and vice president of the anthropology club, noted, “The students also wore red and black, [which are symbolic colors,] to honor the ancestors.”
During the ceremony, students also sprinkled cedar and tobacco into the fire and prayed for the ancestors whose remains lie within the mound; this practice, which is also similar to Christianity’s use of incense during funerals, was symbolic to Native Americans, as they believed the smoke that rose from the fires during tribal ceremonies was a way family members could communicate with dead loved ones.
Saint Vincent’s participation in this preservation movement has helped to increase awareness of the symbolic and sacred burial mound and to further the efforts of maintaining the history of Native American ancestors.