- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
- Our City/Our Campus
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The second-annual Indigenous Cultural Festival will offer family friendly educational activities that celebrate the contributions made by Native Americans past and present in Pennsylvania and across North America.
A partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center (COTRAIC), sponsors of the 2023 festival include Pitt’s Center for Creativity, the Division of Student Affairs, the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and the University Library System.
“Last year was the first year, and it was very well-received,” said Tessa Provins, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Choctaw Nation. “We see this as the first step of many toward Pitt making significant connections and partnerships with the indigenous communities in Western Pennsylvania and on the broader national scene.”
Events begin Sept. 18 in the Oakland neighborhood and include special exhibits at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library. A mini powwow in Schenley Plaza on Sept. 20 leads up to COTRAIC’s 44th annual Powwow, to be held Sept. 23 and 24 in Dorseyville, Indiana Township. Pitt will provide free transportation for students to attend.
A powwow is a sacred social gathering held by indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada. They are usually open to the public and include dancing and singing. The mini powwow at Schenley Plaza begins at 10 a.m. Sept. 20 and will include opening remarks, a grand entry ceremony, inter-tribal and social dancing and educational displays.
“A lot of people hear that it’s a ‘powwow’ and they worry that, ‘I’m not indigenous, I should not be part of this,’” Provins said. “But we’re inviting the public. They should feel welcome. These events are meant to be learning experiences and fun — the expectation is that people will be able to learn in an experiential way. This is about sharing our culture, our identity and our experiences.”
Most events, including the powwows, are free and open to the public. Get the full schedule.
Mike Simms, a member of the Seminole Nation and a volunteer with COTRAIC, said organizers of last year’s festival were pleasantly surprised by the public response.
“Usually, with a first-year event, sometimes you’re not sure about the turnout,” he said. “It turned out to be a very busy day for everyone.”
Simms will lead a workshop on indigenous drumming and singing at the Cathedral of Learning’s Center for Creativity (Room B-50) at 7 p.m. Sept. 18. A separate workshop at the same time will teach participants how to make traditional leather pouches.
“It’s important for us to show that there is still an American Indian community in Pittsburgh,” Simms said. “We’re not people of the past, and many of the things that you’ve seen in Hollywood movies are not actually true. We may work normal jobs, but we still hold our culture close to us — and we still practice that culture.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 189,000 Pennsylvania residents have indigenous heritage. The University’s campuses occupy ancestral lands of the Seneca Nation and Adena, Hopewell and Monongahela peoples, who were later joined by displaced refugees of other tribes, including the Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo and Haudenosaunee people.
“Many people don’t understand the diversity of our Native American and Alaska Native population,” Provins said. “Like other minority groups, they have rich histories and different perspectives on contemporary issues. They’ve made significant contributions to American life and to the history of Pittsburgh itself — some of which are unrecognized or underrecognized.”
More than 10 different tribes participated in the Indigenous Cultural Festival in 2022, and organizers are hoping for an even stronger showing this year. Simms expects participants in the 2023 events to visit Pittsburgh from all over North America.
In addition to preserving and sharing Native American culture, COTRAIC also provides services that promote the socioeconomic development of indigenous people in Western Pennsylvania. Current programs include an employment and training service, elder care, educational enrichment for youth and teenagers, and Head Start for preschool age children.
— Jason Togyer, photography by Aimee Obidzinski