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Our Undying Past

Marking Pa.'s Last Indian Removal

The blow-by-blow of how our Eastern Woodlands Indians were dispossessed gets sorely limited treatment in history classes, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. This weekend, a painful chapter in that history will be commemorated by the Seneca Nation along the New York-Pennsylvania border.

The events of “Remembering the Removal, 50 Years Later” will mark the Army Corps of Engineers’ ouster of the Senecas from their very last toehold of ancestral land in Pennsylvania. In the late 1950s, the Corps set out to build a hydroelectric dam that would effectively flood 10,000 acres of the tribe’s so-called Cornplanter Tract, which is about 70 miles east of Erie, Pa. The Supreme Court cleared the way, allowing a treaty to be broken and forcing the relocation of more than 600 Seneca families north to New York.

Not familiar with the story? You’re hardly alone.

The Seneca Nation wants to raise public awareness about the Kinzua removal.It aims to achieve a comprehensive curriculum for use by education systems, as well as a traveling exhibit that can be displayed at museums, local chambers and visitor centers, event chair Tracie Brown told the Salamanca Press newspaper.

Salamanca is a town in the Southern Tier of New York that’s the headquarters of the Seneca tribal government. I visited there during a road trip eight years ago, and cruised south to see the remote Kinzua Dam. The experience sent me back to read its history for the first time.

Here are the basics: Although Pennsylvania authorities claimed all of the state’s remaining Indian land in the so-called Last Purchase of 1784 – as recounted in my historical novel Visions of Teaoga – an exception was granted for the Senecas. This was to reward their Chief Cornplanter.

After the Revolutionary War, Cornplanter had worked to keep peace between his people and the new United States, even helping to negotiate large Iroquois land cessions to the whites. Here’s how the website explorepahistory.com tells it: “The Americans respected Cornplanter for his honesty, principles, and ability as a negotiator. He made many personal allies including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Mifflin. He would later be rewarded with land in Pennsylvania that was to remain in his family for ‘perpetuity.’ As time unfolded, however, this was not to be.”

Indeed. The Corps of Engineers moved in, and the U.S. Supreme Court gave the dam project the green light based on the right of eminent domain.

As Tracie Brown says, “This year marks the 50th year since the construction of the Kinzua Dam turned the peaceful Allegany River Valley into the ‘valley of smoke’ where flames engulfed family homes and the ever rising waters inundated the small villages that dotted the river banks. In 1964, after years of struggling with the Army Corps of Engineers to consider better alternatives and insisting on the U.S. Congress to honor the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, the Kinzua Dam was built. The lands that were promised to the Senecas were flooded, but we remember by passing down this legacy to our future generations.”

The Seneca Nation has held a series of commemorative events this year seeking, as Brown says, “some closure over the wounds that are still open, so that our future generations don’t carry the burden of those unhealed wounds.”

The events, which culminate this weekend, have included a musical performance featuring Johnny Cash’s song “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” about the Kinzua Dam removal. Friday evening, Sept. 26, there was a bonfire and healing ceremony led by an elder who is a “removal survivor.”

On Saturday in Salamanca, there is to be a commemorate walk in the afternoon, followed by a closing dinner and panel discussion about the past, present and future of the situation.

“We’re trying to mend our community from being relocated 50 years ago,” Brown told the Salamanca Press. “So much was lost back then — not only 10,000 acres of land — but a lot of family and community that was lost then, too. We’re trying to find a way by healing and trying to look out for more than just the Seneca Nation but also for the city” of Salamanca.

The commemoration has an added sadness for me, a retired Philadelphia Inquirer newsman. Back in the Inquirer’s heyday a generation ago, when we had robust resources and believed all the world to be in our coverage beat, we would have locked on to the Kinzua event and sent a reporter and photographer to cover it. Today, not a prayer.
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