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Saturday, May 20, Sunday, May 21, 12 pm to 6 pm

A powwow is a vibrant celebration of American Indian culture. Powerful, pulsing, energetic, exhilarating. History released from books and museums into the bracing open air. Singing, dancing, drumming. Artistry, tradition, spirituality. 

"A powwow is alive," explains Fred Deer, a local Mohawk. Each May, Deer and other members of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center join Carnegie Museum of Natural History to host an authentic powwow in the rear courtyard of the museum. 

Each day begins with the grand entry of all performers in their spectacular regalia. The procession begins with flag bearers and head dancers, followed by dancers in order of their traditions—grass dancers, jingle dress, fancy, and shawl. This year’s host drummer is Mark Tayac joined by the Tayac Drummers and Singers from Maryland. The Iroquois Dance Troupe from New York and the Council of Three Rivers Intertribal Dancers are the featured dancers. 

Throughout the day, American Indian performers and artists invite the audience into the heart of their living culture. American Indian traders from all over the United States show authentic American Indian arts and crafts—quilts, jewelry, baskets, clothing, and pottery. The aromas of traditional American Indian foods—fry bread, Indian chili, buffalo burgers—fill the air. 

The museum’s hosting of the powwow began in 1998 to celebrate the opening of the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians. Attendance at the powwow has grown each year, says Tomi Simms, a local Seminole/Cherokee Indian and one of the co-coordinators of the event. "People enjoy the powwow," says Simms. "They come back every year. They’re being educated about what American Indian culture really is rather than what the history books say it was."



"Let me clarify what I mean when I say ‘native,’ Russell Simms said gently in a recent interview.

Simms—a Seminole/Cherokee Indian, executive director of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, and consultant to the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians -- readily accepts the task of explaining an Indian concept to someone who is not familiar with the culture. It is not the first or last time he will have to do so. 

To be native, he explains, does not simply mean that one has native ancestry. To be native means that one follows native beliefs and traditions. To be native means to *live* as a native. 

That distinction made, Simms estimates that there are more than 16,000 natives in Western Pennsylvania. People who live as natives--not people who may have one-eighth, one-fourth, or some other fraction "blood." 

We are not talking census counts and the like. We are talking about something more intrinsic. And once again, Simms is successful in creating understanding -- an ongoing activity for a cultural group for whom understanding has traditionally been in short supply.

A decade ago, Carnegie Museum of Natural History began the process of creating an exhibit hall devoted to American Indians. The time had come to share the museum’s extensive American Indian collection with the public. The exhibit staff of anthropologists, conservators, designers, and educators knew that if they were to do it well, they needed to do it in cooperation with American Indians. They had to understand and present the culture through American Indian eyes. 

The museum invited American Indians from Pittsburgh and all over the country to guide them in building the hall. Simms’ group, The Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, was particularly active. Through the involvement of these consultants, an extraordinary exhibit hall focusing on the Hopi, Iroquois, Lakota, and Tlinget cultures was created. 

Previously, the museum’s exhibits of American Indians were stereotypical—like so much of what was found in history books, movies, and television until very recently. Images of American Indians, such as the museum’s now-defunct exhibit of the Hopi Indian Snake Dance, fell far short of creating understanding. Times have changed. Museums and most Americans have come a long way in de-programming themselves in regard to American Indian stereotypes. 

As it was conceived, the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians would inspire understanding and appreciation of the culture. Ironically, the exhibition staff itself—through the collaborative process they engaged in to build the hall -- attained even deeper levels of understanding, sometimes in unexpected ways.

"When you walk in the hall, you have a sense of going home," says Fred Deer, a Mohawk Iroquois who served as a consultant for the hall. "The hall is not just for natives. All people have that feeling."

Deer is certain that the sense of spirituality that permeates the hall is not the result of plans and designs. "The makers of the hall were being guided," he says with a knowing smile. "We don’t know where [that feeling] comes from. Indians say it like this: ‘We are all part of a great mystery.’"

It is easy to believe that the "great mystery" has indeed drawn crowds into the exhibit hall week after week for the past three years. On weekend afternoons right up to the minute the museum’s doors close, the hall is filled with adults and children hovering around displays, listening to oral histories on video monitors, gazing at the "sky" in the Star Theater, touching the revered buffalo.

According to James B. Richardson III, Curator of Anthropology, it was that buffalo that transported the exhibit team into the worldview of the American Indian. It was decided that there would be a "touchable" buffalo in the hall. The museum identified an aging buffalo on a Pennsylvania meat farm. They arranged to have it excused from its fate in the slaughterhouse so that it could be mounted for the hall. 

Richardson and his staff knew that the buffalo is sacred to American Indians, but they did not realize how the relationship worked. "Whoa—back up—you can’t just kill this buffalo," Seminole /Cherokee consultant Tomi Simms told the exhibition team. The buffalo must be *asked* if he is willing to be used for this purpose, she said. 

And ask they did. According to Lakota legend, the buffalo made a pact long ago to feed the people. In return, special ceremonies are performed when buffalo are killed. The museum asked Rosalie Little Thunder, a Lakota spiritual leader, to perform the ceremony. Richardson and his staff traveled to a farm in Mercer County for the event. Richardson recalls that the medicine woman and the buffalo "communed" about whether the buffalo wanted to be in an exhibit to educate people. Rosalie told the people in attendance that the answer was affirmative. "It was an incredibly moving ceremony," says Richardson. 

Mohawk Indian Fred Deer thinks that people respond to Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians and to American Indian culture in general because they speak to what is indigenous in all of us. "All people have roots in indigenous cultures somewhere and we all can relate. That’s what is important about the hall. We can start a dialogue. We can talk to each other and learn from each other. The hall made a great difference in opening communication."

Richardson agrees, "Europeans coordinated the hall, but the Indian voice has come through." The exhibition team wanted to build a hall that presented a living culture, not one that simply displayed objects, he adds. "We tried to bring out that artifacts are made by people, by vital cultures. All the American Indian consultants wanted this."

The consultants were polled about how to name the hall—American Indian or Native American. The consultants agreed that "American Indian"—the centuries-old misnomer—was the best choice. Richardson said that the naming decision here coincided with the choice made at the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

"Most people I talk to are amazed [by the hall]," says Fred Deer. "Natives are pleased. They like what they see. It’s not the past. It is what they are a part of now. [The hall creates] a great sense of pride in the native community because this is the life they are leading."

But perhaps it is the visitors to Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians who stand to gain the most. For them, the hall provides the knowledge that American Indians want to share—man’s partnership with nature, a way of being that is in tune with the spirit. One leaves the hall understanding what the Tlinget mean when they say, "We talk to the trees and say ‘thank you,’" or how a medicine woman can ask a buffalo to be a teacher. 


Indians lived in the Pittsburgh area for thousands of years before European explorers and traders reached the confluence of the three rivers. When the first Europeans arrived, the Woodland Indians, who had long claimed southwestern Pennsylvania as their homeland, were gone, having been conquered by the Iroquois Nations to the north. 

The Native Americans encountered by the first Europeans were refugees from other parts of the country. The Iroquois permitted these refugee Delaware, Shawnee and other groups to settle near the Point, then a symbolic place on the Pennsylvania frontier. The Allegheny River formed the boundary between lands claimed by European nations to the east and by American Indians to the west. As the French and English built forts at the Point, the Indians claimed the north side of the river. Important treaties and land transactions were negotiated during this time when Pittsburgh resembled a western town with a fort and trading posts on one side of the river and Indian camps on the other. 

Catastrophic battles, raids, and guerilla warfare dominated this military period of Pittsburgh’s history as the Indians and Europeans fought for control of the Point. During Pontiac’s War, the British at Fort Pitt remained under almost constant siege in the summer of 1763. The Indians retreated from the Point in August after their defeat at the Battle of Bushy Run. 

-- From the new trail sign being prepared for the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh


Archaeologists and research associates from Carnegie Museum of Natural History have been digging at various sites in southwestern Pennsylvania for decades. Bit by bit, these excavations provide clues about the life of the Monongahela Indians who were here before Europeans arrived in the 1700s. Researchers work closely with local chapters of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology on these digs. 

The museum’s collection of American Indian artifacts contains more than two million objects, making it one of the largest regional collections. Paradoxically, archaeological discoveries usually raise more questions than they answer, notes Staff Archeologist Dick George. For example, a site in Washington County revealed more than a ton of fire-burnt stone perhaps used in the processing of harvested black walnuts. It may also indicate that the natives were partially manipulating the environment by fire-clearing in order to obtain a better nut yield from the somewhat isolated walnut tree population. 

The excavating, and the investigating of past Indian societies, continues. 

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