By Elizabeth Perry
A summer solstice kayak trip that culminated in a visit to what remains of the Indigenous burial mound in McKees Rocks was meant to draw focus to ongoing environmental and cultural issues.
Environmental activist Degawëno:da’s of the Seneca nation chose the site in McKees Rocks to culminate his June 21 journey in order to “bring attention to the desecration and lack of access to what remains of the mound,” according to a release by organizer BREATHE Project.
In 1895, archeologists for the Carnegie Museum excavated the mound, removing 33 skeletal remains and artifacts made of copper and shell.
The layered burial mound showed remains had been placed there over centuries. It is estimated the Indigenous initially began using the mound for burial rights around 100 B.C. The remains and artifacts recovered from that initial dig had been on display and then in storage at Oakland’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said historian Charlie McCollester.
The re-establishment of the remains to the original mound area occurred about two years ago, according to Joe Stahlman, director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, who was involved with the repatriation of these remains to the McKees Rocks site.
Because of the sensitivity of the situation, Stahlman declined to go into further detail about the location of the remains. He said so many “fictions and fantasies” have been built up around the McKees Rocks site and his culture in general.
“I spend so much time doing basic education, it’s really problematic,” Stahlman said.
Stahlman said every story of repatriation is complex, and every relationship with institutions that have the remains of his ancestors is different. “You’ve got to let us be, and let us be humans,” Stahlman said.
Sandy Saban, president of the McKees Rocks Historical Society, said the history of the mound was something the organization planned to detail on pedestal monuments being erected in McKees Rocks.
“The historical society is hoping to work with the Seneca about the mound,” Saban said.
Saban said the society was trying to repair the relationship with the Seneca after the history of desecration dating from the late 19th century. Through the years, the burial site was further eroded through quarrying and rumors swirled about ghosts, curses and giants buried in the ground by European immigrants and their children who would look for relics and play on the site.
The former site of the mound is owned partially by Gordon Terminal Services, a company which mixes lubricating oils to customer specifications, and the rest of the land is owned by the Borough of McKees Rocks.
Thaddeus Popovich, a founder of Allegheny County Clean Air Now who attended the event, said his organization was “in solidarity with the Seneca,” because of the environmental devastation done in the name of corporate interests.
Popovich said there are at least 27 polluters living downwind and he believes his quintuple bypass is a direct result of living in a region with poor air quality.
Kathleen Krebs, an activist with ACCAN, attended the event in order to commemorate the summer solstice and to participate in an activity designed to draw attention to the health damages caused by pollution.
Krebs, who wore a mask over her nose and mouth to filter out air particulates and had to leave the event before the arrival of Degawëno:da’s, said she is often stuck indoors because of poor air quality. The Brighton Heights resident said she has lung problems. During a recent incident when she was gardening she found herself unable to breathe. She called the moment an “epiphany.”
“Why are you trying to adapt to an abnormal situation?” she asked herself.
Krebs, a retired nurse, decided to sell her house and move. At this point, she doesn’t know where she will move to, just that she needs to find an airshed where she can breathe easily, though she loves the area.
“It’s just tragic,” Krebs said.
In 2019 Degawëno:da’s paddled 300 miles from Coudersport, Pennsylvania to Point State Park to promote water protection, according to BREATHE. He also narrated a documentary called, “Invisible Hand,” according to the film’s promotional site, which talks in part about the organization Defend Ohi:yo which Degawëno:da’s started to protest a fracking wastewater treatment plant in Potter County, Pennsylvania.
Degawëno:da’s began the solstice trip at dawn at Tygart State Park in West Virginia.
Erica Jackson joined the kayak trip at the boat launch in the Southside of Pittsburgh to show her support for Degawëno:da’s journey.
Jackson has worked with the organization Fractracker Alliance for almost five years.
“We study maps and communicate (the) health and environmental impact of oil and gas,” Jackson said.
The organization compiles data from across the United States and according to its website “maps, analyzes, and communicates the risks of oil, gas, and petrochemical development to advance just energy alternatives that protect public health, natural resources, and the climate.”
Jackson said she learned a great deal over the years about environmental justice, and how certain low-income areas like McKees Rocks often bear the brunt of repeated projects which damage the environment.
“The oil and gas industry is really powerful. It takes so many different components for victories,” Jackson said.
Degawëno:da’s addressed the small group that had gathered at the site behind Rangers Field, saying that as he kayaked down the river, he imagined the land as it looked to his ancestor Seneca Leader Guyusuta, “erasing all these buildings, all this steel.” Guyusuta had been a contemporary of George Washington and a major force in the French and Indian War. A statue of Guyusuta and Washington commemorates them at Point of View Park on Mt. Washington.
“This has been a really prominent area for my ancestors,” Degawëno:da’s said.
He went on to say he wanted to reestablish a relationship with the region.
“We have the like minds, we have the ability to do that.”