McKees Rocks Indian Mound5

Ancient Ones Could Return to Pillaged Site —

What are the chances the skeletons of Ancient Ones removed from the Indian mound at McKees Rocks well over a century ago will one day be put back?

Better than you might think.

In fact, nothing stands in the way — if you don’t count the human tendency to step on each other’s toes.

There is a lot more at stake than what happens to the long dead.

At least three communities of the living stand to feel better. And, they know it.

Let’s start with the Indians.

“Those Ancient Ones need to go back to finish their journey.”

Jay Toth, historic preservation officer for the Seneca Nation in upstate New York, said he hopes to begin this month on repatriating the bones from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

“Those ancient ones need to go back to finish their journey,” he said.

Jay Toth

Toth said he wasn’t aware the museum had mound remains until now.

What will the Seneca do with them?

“I believe if you cannot place them back to the original spot, at least some place close by,” Toth replied.

“Families had decided that is where they wanted their love ones to be, and we should honor that.  We have no right to determine otherwise.”

“That’s a dream come true.”

Tell that to people in McKees Rocks, and their eyes brighten. They get broad smiles and nod their heads.

“That’s a dream come true!” said Tracey Pedersen of the McKees Rocks Historical Society.

“We’re on board,” affirmed Paul Krisby, borough council president.

Council President Paul Krisby (left), Historical Society President Sandy Saban (center), and Tracey Pedersen

Borough Has Land and Economic Development Money

That reaction matters because the borough owns land atop the bluff near where the original mound sat. That was before townspeople, the museum and a quarry operation obliterated it.

Moreover, the borough has economic development grants coming to it that must include spending on a public park component. That could mean helping the Seneca rebuild the mound at McKees Rocks.

The Seneca also could get a grant under the Native American Graves Protection Act of 1990 to cover some of the costs.

A properly conceived site could respect the dead, honor Indian traditions, draw tourists, and educate.

A deep sense of guilt and pride runs through McKees Rocks when it comes to the mound.

Sandy Saban, president of the historical society, envisions an operation that could help the town get on the right side of history.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Indian artifacts sit in McKees Rocks garages and attics, collected by generations now gone.

Pedersen knows many people, including herself, who think of them as things they shouldn’t have. They don’t know what to do with them.

“I don’t even want to touch them, ” she said.

So, what about the Carnegie Museum?

Would it turn the remains of 33 people and a trove of burial artifacts it has held since its founding in 1896 over to the Seneca?

You bet.

“I look forward to working with the Seneca Nation to facilitate this process.”

Carnegie Welcomes Seneca Request

“I look forward to working with the Seneca Nation to facilitate this process,” wrote Amy L. Covell-Murthy, archaeology collection manager, when told of Toth’s repatriation plans.

The museum’s role of playing caretaker became apparent after I asked Covell-Murthy what exactly is in the collection.

“I would be more comfortable leaving it up to them (the Seneca) in the future to choose whether or not to disclose the nature of the cultural material from the collection,” she wrote.

“Due to the extremely sensitive nature of the material and the Seneca’s interest in repatriation, we are apprehensive about advertising the contents publicly. It is always a dangerous possibility that local people will catch wind of a reburial and then attempt to loot the graves.

“I wish that this were not the case, but some people still fail to see the disrespect in this type of desecration.”

McKees Rocks does have a history.

So, keeping the remains and relics safe from being looted again is something that will have to be addressed.

It Is a Long Process

There will be time.

“The last repatriation we were involved with took nearly five years to complete,” Covell-Murthy noted.

The process is laid out by the federal law.

as the Friends of the Serpent Mound near Cincinnati learned when they had to stop lighting luminaries on the site at Christmas time. It was not appropriate to the culture that created the massive earthwork.

Under the law, remains of 32,000 people and 800,000 related objects were given to their respective tribes as of 2016. 

That indicates there was once a lot of grave-robbing in the name of natural history. Giving it all back doesn’t make it all good.

“Human burials are like a melted snow man,” Toth explained.  “You cannot really move it.  Moving it destroys the site.

“Moving the bones is like moving what’s left of a melted snowman.

“Unfortunately, it’s American racism, since the pilgrims themselves desecrated native graves without reprimand.  Even today a landowner thinks they own the dead and their funeral items found on their land.

 “If I reversed the scene and dug up someone’s grandmother at a cemetery, they would raise hell. 

“If you destroy a native sacred site, well that’s OK because it’s not Christian.  But do not do that to a church.”

Could Everyone Win?

So, if the Ancient Ones return to McKees Rocks, five million Americans who claim Indian heritage, and who carry the weight of ancestral subjugation, will find their loads a tiny bit lighter.

They will feel a bit more respected, and they will have met an obligation to the ones who came before.

As for the professionals at the Carnegie Museum, they will be relieved to make right what their predecessors did wrong.

However, the people of McKees Rocks undoubtedly will be the biggest beneficiaries.

They could celebrate pride in the mound they think of as their own — without the guilt. And, they’d have tourism.

Time will tell.


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#1. Does part of the mound remain where it was built 2,500 years ago?

A state historic preservation officers and members of the Seneca Nation walked the site a decade ago and concluded that the stone under the earthworks had been quarried away. The quarry itself is not part of the mound.

#2. What was the first person buried in the mound?

The skeleton found alone at the base of the mound belonged to a 6-foot, two-inch woman wearing trappings associated with spiritual leadership, such as a copper-clad bear tooth pendant.

#3. The Carnegie Museum ended excavation of the mound in 1896 because:

The director of both the museum and the dig quit abruptly after citizens protested in the newspapers and at the site. The museum had excavated half the mound, leaving the other half for future archaeologists. That turned out to be McKees Rocks residents. They pillaged the site. Thousands of Indian artifacts are said to be sitting in borough attics and garages. Lightning did stun two museum workers, but that did not stop the dig.

#4. What did the Carnegie Museum do with remains and artifacts taken from the mound?

The collection was part of the museum’s American Indian exhibit. It did not write and publish a report on the dig. The collection was put in storage after such display of bones was deemed disrespectful. No recognized tribe has formally sought to rebury the bones, as yet.

#5. McKees Rocks residents often dug into the mound looking for collectibles, but they hoped to strike it rich by finding:

Saloon rumors in 1901, coupled with quarry plans to remove even more stone from under the remaining mound, sent people with shovels looking for McKee’s legendary stash. If it was found, the finders kept it to themselves — in more ways than one.

#6. Rock taken from under the mound was used for what purpose?

Much of the stone went to borough road and building-raising projects.

#7. The mound site was once used for gatherings. Which was the biggest?

Thousands of immigrant workers at at railroad car manufacturer, often joined by their wives and children, met there almost daily during a two-month strike.


#8. What has to happen before the Ancient Ones leave the museum and return to a spot overlooking the Ohio River?

The Carnegie Museum says it would be only too happy to stop being caretaker to the Ancient Ones. The Seneca Nation says tribal tradition make it responsible for playing that role, but has yet to formally begin the long federal process for repatriation. McKees Rocks leaders say they would welcome a new mound with open arms, but they will have to ensure those arms do not carry agendas insensitive to Seneca ways.


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