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The parks around Pittsburgh were not always greenspaces filled with benches and running trails tucked away inside an urban environment. Nor were the area’s waterways always populated by recreational kayakers and boaters. Centuries ago, the land around the Pittsburgh region (and the country as a whole) served a much different purpose to the indigenous tribes that lived on it.
People have lived around the Pittsburgh area for thousands of years; one of the oldest carbon dated settlements in North America was just south of the city at Meadowcroft Rockshelter in present-day Washington County. The settlement was used as a temporary campsite by multiple groups moving throughout the area. It is believed that tribes headed to this region because of the proximity to multiple waterways which proved useful in trading.
One of the first tribes to make a permanent settlement around Pittsburgh was the Adena tribe. Around 1100 BCE, members of this tribe settled in the McKees Rocks area. Much of their story can be told through the mounds they built in the area. Archeologists in the late 19th century excavated human remains alongside tools and pearls from the mounds that are currently reside at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History Research Center. Casualties of road building and other construction, all the mounds are gone today with only a historical marker noting their existence. (Seen below)
Hopewell and Monongahela tribes
Pittsburgh was then home to the Hopewell and Monongahela tribes while other tribes started to move into the area after being forced out of their original homes in the 1700s.
Delaware, Shawnee, Osage
Delaware, Shawnee, Osage, and other tribes began settling along the three rivers and created settlements like Shannopin’s Town (Delaware) and Chartier’s Town (Shawnee). These settlements were important trading outposts as the British and French began to occupy the area. Tribes would trade pelts and other goods for materials like brass and steel.
British and French arrive
The British and French arrivals ultimately proved disastrous for the tribes. War, disease, and false treaties led to settlements dying out and tribes moving further westward. The original stewards of the region had their land and homes stolen from them and their descendants continue to face hardships as the US Government Accountability Office has concluded many indigenous communities around the country struggle with poverty, access to clean water, and access to health care.
Members of these tribes and others are still active in the indigenous communities around Pittsburgh. The Council of the Three Rivers American Indian Center not only works to support indigenous people in the area through programs like career training and early childcare, but they also celebrate the culture with an annual powwow in Dorseyville. The Council also found success in the advocacy sphere recently as Squaw Valley Park was renamed O’Hara Township Community Park due to the work of the Council (the original name contains a slur offensive to the indigenous community).
Education and Land Acknowledgement
The issues faced by these communities are systemic and there is no easy solution. While reconciliation is a process that takes generations, we can take a small step by practicing land acknowledgements – an easy and increasingly popular way to recognize the original caretakers of the land that we live on. Acknowledging that we are on stolen land and paying tribute to the original stewards can help raise awareness of the tragic past and as well as inspire others to learn about our country’s relationships with the indigenous community.
To do a land acknowledgement, you will have to find out which indigenous groups traditionally inhabited your area – https://native-land.ca is a helpful resource that overlays tribal areas on a map of the US. When constructing the land acknowledgement itself, there is no set form. Most statements begin by naming the specific tribes that cared for the land followed by a few words about recognizing these tribes as the traditional caretakers of the land and how we aim to continue their work and honor their story.
Pittsburgh has a rich indigenous history that deserves to be celebrated. Practicing land acknowledgements can help educate others about this history while starting the long process of mending the relationships with indigenous communities in the area.