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Pitch for Mounds

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A newly formed organization has taken up a very old cause: to protect and restore Native American burial grounds. And the group isn't afraid to challenge local governments, corporations and cultural institutions to do so.

Already, the Mound Society of Western Pennsylvania has held a protest in front of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which possesses 33 bodies taken from the McKees Rocks Mound in 1896, and later displayed in the museum.

Mound Society Director Eugene Strong -- who identifies himself as part Potawatomi -- says the museum's possession of the bodies is "sacrilege." But Carnegie Museums spokesperson Leigh Kish says the museum has not received a formal request for the remains from a recognized tribe, which is required under federal law.

In any case, those 33 bodies represent just a fraction of the 10,000 Strong says may still be buried under a roughly 21-acre tract of land that begins near the McKees Rocks Bridge and stretches east to the Ohio River.

"This mound is a place of worship," says Strong, who wants the Borough of McKees Rocks to return the roughly 5 acres of the area it owns. But borough officials believe a much smaller portion was used for burial purposes. And regardless, they say repatriating that land is beyond their power.

"The mound itself, as we understand it, is not even on borough property," borough attorney John Bacharach told Strong at a council meeting on July 13, adding that any other borough-owned land could be sold only in a public auction.

The borough locates the mound on private property, agreeing with a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker that measures the mound at 16 feet tall and 85 feet long.

"What they're taught are things like that plaque: inaccuracies," Strong says.

Without conducting an archeological survey of the remaining land, the Mound Society's efforts are unlikely to hold much sway, Strong admits. Doing so would require permission from the PHMC and the land's owners: Gordon Terminal Service, a lubricating-oil company that owns more than half of the property; Lane Construction Corporation, a concrete plant that owns a smaller portion on which the state-recognized mound sits; and the borough.

The PHMC credits the Adena culture with building the mound between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D., with Hopewell and Monongahela cultures adding on later. But a Mound Society report says artifacts suggest the mound's origin reaches back thousands of years earlier, to pre-historic times. The early 20th century marked the start of a "gradual takeover and occupation" by industry, the report says.

"It's adding insult to injury [for Native Americans]," says the Rev. Mark Gruber, Mound Society board member and former anthropology professor at St. Vincent College. "It's being destroyed incrementally in a commercial way."

Gary Farole, a consulting engineer whom the borough contracted to review its property, says the borough may be willing to sell its portion.

"It's property that they don't perceive as being viable for construction," Farole says.

That would still leave more than half of the land in private hands. And even if a survey supports Strong's estimates, neither governments nor private land-owners are required to return ownership of burial grounds to Native American tribes, says Mark McConaughy, of the state's Bureau for Historic Preservation.

The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act covers only burial artifacts and bodies, McConaughy says, so Strong's effort to obtain the land would be a private endeavor.

"We don't have any control of those kinds of things," McConaughy says.

Last year's market value for the borough-owned land was roughly $267,400, according to data on Allegheny County's property-assessments website. Currently, the Mound Society doesn't have that kind of funding, Strong says, adding that the group plans to apply for federal grants to pursue its cause.

While portions of the land are used by the companies for their operations, much of the land the group seeks is vacant. Even so, Gruber says, getting it turned over may not be easy because there are jobs and employees to be considered.

"It doesn't seem real to [the land-owners]; it's an abstract," Gruber says. At the same time, he adds, "These are real jobs, and these are real people's lives. And that has to be respected." Neither company responded by deadline to requests for comment.

Strong says his visions for the mound's future include turning it into a national park with a tourist center. Strong plans to hold a ceremony on the mound and a protest march through McKees Rocks on Sept. 21.

Says Strong: "I just have a lot of faith in knowing what I'm doing is right."

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