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A Pittsburgh museum and a Pittsburgh Indian Center

Council Of Three Rivers American Indian Center

In 1998 The CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania opened a new section of its public exhibit dedicated exclusively to the Indigenous people of the United States. This new exhibit is called the ALCOA FOUNDATION HALL OF AMERICAN INDIANS.

At that time the museum reached out to the COUNCIL OF THREE RIVERS AMERICA INDIAN CENTER (COTRAIC), which is the local urban Indigenous entity that represents Native people in the Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania region.

The Indian center and the museum collaborated in the effort to mount the grand opening of the new exhibit with a special celebration that included a complete pow wow, featuring some of the most talented pow wow dancers and singers of that era. COTRAIC organized the whole event right there at the Oakland area site of the museum, including the preparation of Native American food like the Indian frybread which was cooked by my own wife, Lenia Sague and other members of the local community in a museum kitchen.

Many of us participated in the presentation of that event, and the museum honored our participation by dedicating a portion of the new exhibit to local Indigenous people and especially to the local Indian center COTRAIC. The COTRAIC display is still there and functioning. It includes oral narrations of the local Indigenous experience in Pittsburgh delivered by Pittsburgh Indigenous residents and accompanied by photos of the local Native speakers as we looked in 1998. The images appear one after the other in a loop presentation on a video screen. Of course we have all aged over the 20 years since those photos were taken. Some of the people featured in it have actually passed away already, so that particular portion of the exhibit is now hopelessly outdated. 

The museum and the Indian center temporarily continued its relationship after that event and, in fact, a kind of annual tradition emerged from that day onward which included the yearly celebration of a pow wow at the museum, organized by COTRAIC every summer. COTRAIC participated in that summer pow wow in Oakland in 1999 and then again in 2000.

During that period, prominent members of COTRAIC, such as executive director Russ Simms, created great memories of cooperation with members of the museum staff such as Anthropology curator Jim Richardson. Other museum staff members from that era such as Amy L. Covell-Murthy also have recently expressed fond memories of those times.

She is a dedicated professional who has strong convictions of the rights of Indigenous people.

Unfortunately, subsequent administrative changes at the Carnegie caused a deterioration of the relationship between the museum and COTRAIC. There never was a fourth annual pow wow at the Carnegie in Oakland. We never officially worked together again for almost twenty years.

During the time that we were not officially collaborating, I personally established a brief friendship with a museum staff member called David Watters. Watters was a lead researcher at the excavation of an archeological site on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in the late 1990's. The site is called the "Trants Site" and it contains enormous amounts of material related to the ancient Saladoid culture who were the first Arawakan people that emigrated out of South America to inhabit the Caribbean islands. The Saladoids are the ancestors of my own Taino people. They were talented ceramicists who created beautiful red clay pottery decorated with geometric patterns rendered in white paint.

Watters' excavation work was interrupted right around the end of the millennium due to the eruption of the local volcano Soufriere Hills. The volcano's eruption was catastrophic. It completely and permanently destroyed the capital city, Plymouth, and created a vast unsafe zone of exclusion over two thirds of the island which included the Trant Site that Watters was excavating.  

Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat

As a result of the interruption of Dr. Watter's work, a large trove of Saladoid archeological material, including clay pottery, that he had been studying, remained and continued to be maintained for safe-keeping at a storage facility of the museum here in Pittsburgh. It will stay here until the situation in Montserrat improves and the authorities there request their repatriation. After I reached out to him, Dr Watters was kind enough to invite me to his office and work space at the museum annex where this material was being kept. I was able to admire the handiwork of my ancestors. With the cooperation of Dr Watters I integrated some these sacred relics in the ceremonies of the CANEY INDIGENOUS SPIRITUAL CIRCLE that were celebrated in the early 2000's here at the Verona, Pennsylvania lodge of our community. 

Through my interactions with Dr Watters I learned that he has been involved in lots of  research dealing with the culture of my ancestors, including groundbreaking studies of unique Caribbean Indigenous beadwork

I also discovered that he had been instrumental in bringing the work of eminent Cuban researchers Ramon Dacal Moure and Manuel Rivero De La Calle to the English-speaking world by helping facilitate a translation of their book ART AND ARCHEOLOGY OF PRECOLUMBIAN CUBA from Spanish to English.

He generously gifted me a copy of the book, since I already own the Spanish edition.

In recent years a growing number of organizations and entities of all kinds across the United States have arrived at a significant understanding. This understanding is the awareness that it is important to take a conscious and purposeful decision to acknowledge the fact that they exist and carry on their activities on land that once was occupied by Indigenous nations. This awareness has evolved into a movement to activate land acknowledgements. A land acknowledgement is a purposeful act of recognition of the legacy of Indigenous presence in any given piece of land of this country. It is almost always performed with the collaboration of a local Native community or its representatives. It takes the form of an oral or written statement of acknowledgement either at a specific event or as a permanent published display. Many organizations and entities of our western Pennsylvania region now routinely reach out to the COUNCIL OF THREE RIVERS AMERICA INDIAN CENTER for advise and guidance in carrying out the activities associated with land acknowledgements. Most of these appeals are handled through our Indian center's speakers' bureau of which I have been a presenter for the past 42 years. One of the most recent of these appeals came to us from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. 

My recent interactions and communications with members of the personnel and staff of the museum have had the effect that our two entities are slowly resuming the warm relationship we once enjoyed. I have visited the main museum site for a wonderful meeting with several key members of the museum archeology and anthropology departments and was subsequently invited for a return visit to the annex on Baum Blvd where the museum stores some of its most amazing artifacts and relics of our South American and Central American Indigenous relatives. 

My visit to the annex took place on Friday Feb 25. I was joined and guided through the isles of storage containers by Amy L. Covell-Murthy herself. We were met and assisted by Deb Harding, the Anthropology Collections Manager, who is an amazing human with intense interest in and knowledge of the traditions of our South American rainforest Indigenous relatives. Deb is an expert in the textile and featherwork traditions of Indigenous people of tropical regions. I marvelled at the vast size of the South America and Central American collection, the exquisite feather and textile pieces of native cotton, woven from thread and twine spun by hand. 

                             Deb Harding

The image above shows Carib-language Indigenous dancers of the Kuikuro nation of Brazil.

Deb Harding showed me beautiful objects of featherwork craftsmanship from these people and other tropical rainforest folk that are housed in he collection.

The Carnegie is working in collaboration with the elders of these nations in an effort to preserve their culture in the Xingu region of Brazil.

The collection also included cabinet upon cabinet full of the most extraordinary ceramics from all over the Indigenous regions of South and Central America. Deb and the rest of the staff at the museum freely shared these marvels with me as a representative of the cultures from which those objects are derived. 

I am looking forward to much future collaboration, sharing and dialog between the Carnegie Museum  and the various Indigenous communities that I represent, our Indian Center COTRAIC, here in Pittsburgh, my tribal community, the UNITED CONFEDERATION OF TAINO PEOPLE  my spiritual community, The Caney Circle, and  other Native entities and communities that I am in connection with.

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