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Native American Advocacy

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Earl's Advocacy for Native Americans

From his youth on, Earl Shaffer had a deep respect for Native Americans, their traditions, their history, their survival skills, and their wise use of the land.

Throughout Walking With Spring, Earl provides occasional references to Native American history relating to important places and place names along the Appalachian Trail.  While telling of his progress through Georgia, he introduces readers to the history of the Cherokee Nation, whose territory had included much of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.  He recounts the story of their tragic and unfair removal by the U.S. Government to Oklahoma, the “Trail of Tears,” and how it was in part precipitated by the discovery of gold at Dahlonega, Georgia (p. 14).  He describes the ultimate insult of the State of Georgia’s declaring all Cherokee land to be state land, thereafter demanding that they pay rent to the State. 

Kinzua flyer with dam alternative.jpg

Later in the book, as Earl approaches Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Valley, he gives a brief account of the Eastern Tribes that used a trail through the valley as a major corridor for north-south travel through the Appalachian Mountains.  That trail eventually became US Route 11.

Kinzua Dam and the Allegheny Seneca Indian Tribe

Earl’s respect and concern for the fair treatment of Native Americans was aroused by the planned construction of the Kinzua Dam in 1960.  This Dam, to be built on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania, just south of the New York State Border, would deprive the Allegheny Seneca Indian Nation of  9,000 acres in the heart of their reservation—a lush valley lying along both sides of the Allegheny River. 


The Kinzua Dam would also flood the 1,500 acre Cornplanter Reservation, the last remaining Indian land in Pennsylvania, that was granted to the Seneca Chief, Cornplanter, in 1796 by President George Washington. The Cold Spring Longhouse, the spiritual center of the Seneca, would also be relocated as would cemeteries lying within the future floodplain.

Although the Kinzua Dam was conceived early in the Twentieth Century, and authorized by Congress in the 1936 and 1938 Flood Control Acts, it had not been funded, and did not move forward due to the strong opposition of the Allegheny Seneca Nation and others, as well as due to the disruption and distraction of World War II. 

In the 1950’s, however, business interests and politicians in downstream cities like Pittsburgh lobbied aggressively for construction of the Kinzua Dam, claiming it was essential for flood control and economic growth. 


The Army Corps of Engineers, with its powerful connections to local politicians, had long argued and pushed for the Dam.  A consultant for the Tribe, the noted civil engineer Arthur Morgan, had proposed a cheaper and more elegant plan for flood control that would have had minimal effect on Seneca land.  Morgan's Conewango alternative would have diverted excess flood waters to flow harmlessly into Lake Erie.

The Kinzua Dam issue came to a head in 1957 in testimony before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations.  On the side lobbying against the dam were the Allegheny Seneca Nation, sportsmen’s groups from New York and Pennsylvania, The Indian Rights Association, The Association on American Indian Affairs, and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). 


The Society of Friends (Quakers) had also assisted the Seneca Nation in the negotiation of the original 1794 Pickering Treaty establishing the Allegheny Seneca Reservation. That treaty promised: 

“Now the United States acknowledges all the land within the aforementioned boundaries, to be the property of the Seneca Nation, and the United States will never claim the same, nor disturb the Seneca Nation.”

Despite the opposition to the Kinzua Dam,  a $1 million dollar appropriation for construction of Kinzua Dam was approved by Congress in the Omnibus Public Works bill of June, 1957—a small down payment toward the projected cost of $113 million.


With the threat posed by the Kinzua Dam now imminent, individuals and groups opposed to it rallied around the Allegheny Seneca in an attempt to halt construction before it could get started—or to stop it before it was completed.  Unfortunately they were not successful, and the Kinzua Dam was completed in 1965.  The Cornplanter Memorial, Seneca graves, and 130 Seneca families were relocated.  The 1500 acre reservation granted by President George Washington to Chief Cornplanter is now mostly underwater.  


In  A Grip on the Mane of Life: An Authorized Biography of Earl V. Shaffer, authors David Donaldson and Maurice J. Forrester write:


“Earl’s interest in the Kinzua Dam was sparked by his own long-standing concern for American Indians and their historical mistreatment.  In time, he became involved with the Treaty of 1794 Committee and participated in many of their activities.  On August 11, 1961, President Kennedy announced that he could not (or would not) halt the construction of the dam which was already in its early stages.  The following day, August 12, the Committee began a twenty-four day 'vigil' during which participants lined the highway at the dam site and spoke to thousands of motorists about the U.S. government’s breaking of a solemn 167-year old treaty.  On weekends during the vigil, Earl drove to northwestern Pennsylvania to lend his support.


“The August 29, 1961, issue of the Kinzua Vigil Newsletter concludes with a poem by Earl expressing the sadness laced with outrage felt by all the vigil participants at the shameful violation of a solemn treaty.”

At one point during the protests, according to David Donaldson, Earl was invited to take part in a ceremony in the Longhouse of the Allegheny Seneca Nation—its spiritual center. Earl confided to him that the ceremony was one of the most profound experiences in his life.




In the Valley called Kinzua, where the Allegheny flows

Through the fertile fields and meadows and between the mountains high

Dwell the Seneca forever—so the treaty wording goes—

But forever is no longer and that promise is a lie.

Lo, the fathers of our country struck a bargain, signed and sealed,

That the tribe should have this remnant of their once far-flung domain,

That the enmity and rancor of the bloody past be healed

And the Seneca should never be harassed and shorn again.

As the Cherokee was driven from the land of Wala-Si,

As the Delaware was hounded from the valley Minisink—

Is the outrage never over? Must avenging angels cry

To deter the rank maneuver and the politician’s wink?

Let the judgment be impartial.  Isn’t there a better way?

Must we take the reservation?  There is still a chance to choose.

Has America a conscience? Does injustice rule today?

Will the people of Cornplanter be the only ones to lose?

--Earl V. Shaffer



In a later edition of the Kinzua Vigil Newsletter, Earl published the words to a song he had written honoring the Allegheny Seneca Nation and its loss:

Allegheny River flowing on and on

Through the mountain valleys, toward the Setting Sun,

Through fertile fields and meadows where rippling breezes blow

All through Kinzua Valley, home to the Ohio.


The Green Corn Dance is over, The fields are turning brown.

A harvest moon is shining Above Cornplanter town.

The katydids and crickets are chanting their refrains

All through Kinzua Valley, but they never will again.


The Cornplanter Memorial, the graves among the trees,

The Longhouse and the Stockade, what will become of these?

The Tready has been broken!  No more the sun shall rise

Upon  the Indian Nation beneath Kinzua skies.

--Earl V. Shaffer

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