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Exhibit broadens story of Native Americans in the Pittsburgh region

A painting of a Native American man.
Fort Pitt Museum
The 19th-century painting "The Good Warrior" depicts an Iroquoian man.

Many Pittsburghers know Native Americans played a key role in the region’s history. But the story is complicated and details can get lost. A new exhibit at Fort Pitt Museum seeks to paint a more complete picture.

“Homelands: Native Nations of Allegheny,” which opened Saturday, notes that the very name of the county that includes Pittsburgh was coined by indigenous people who settled here three centuries ago. But that’s neither the beginning nor the end of the narrative.

“Our main idea with the exhibit is to let people know that there’s a whole other layer to the story that happens in present-day Western Pennsylvania than they’re aware of,” said Fort Pitt Museum assistant director Michael Burke.

Native American clothing.
Fort Pitt Museum
A contemporary Native American blanket, moccasins and beadwork in a traditional style are part of the exhibit.

Created in collaboration with four federally recognized tribes — Delaware, Seneca, Seneca-Cayuga and Shawnee — “Homelands” features rare artifacts including a 14,000-year-old stone projectile point that’s evidence of the many millennia for which indigenous people have inhabited Western Pennsylvania. The point was discovered in 1976 at Meadowcroft Rockshelter, in Avella, Pa., which like Fort Pitt Museum is part of Heinz History Center.

"Homelands" also includes paintings, illustrations and historical and contemporary photographs.

Archaeologists tell us people known as the Monongahela lived here from the 1200s into the 1600s. Their disappearance from the area (for reasons still little understood) left it without human settlement for a century or so.

Then, three centuries ago this year, in 1724, indigenous people whom European colonists had displaced from places like New York and Eastern Pennsylvania began to occupy the region, Burke said.

“Allegheny is a place of sanctuary for native peoples of many different nations who come here,” he said. “They live in these communities kind of independent of one another.”

The first arrivals were Lenape, or Delaware, who established a village along the river at Kittanning and another, called Shannopin’s Town, in what’s now Lawrenceville. Shawnee and Seneca-Cayuga followed in the 1730s, Burke said. Other key settlements included Logstown, along the Ohio River at what’s now Harmony Township.

The Native Americans — who around this time became the first to call the area “Allegheny” — lived alongside each other in relative harmony for decades, said Burke. They also established relationships with the British and French who traded fur in the area in the years before the British built Fort Pitt, in 1758.

“That’s where Pittsburgh was really born from, was from the trade between native people and the people here at Fort Pitt,” said D.J. Huff, a member of the Seneca Nation in New York who was a consultant on the exhibit.

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Starting in 1754, Native Americans also fought with both the British and French during what the Brits called the French and Indian War.

Though not always antagonistic, the relationship between indigenous people and colonizers remained complex. Another artifact in the exhibit is a spoon made from buffalo horn, probably in the 1750s. It was loaned to the museum by the descendants of Catharine Bard, a Pennsylvania woman who in 1758 was captured and adopted by Delaware Indians.

“She really enjoyed her new Delaware family so much that when she was taken back to go back to her community, she did not want to go,” said Fort Pitt educator Shideezhi Emarthla, a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation who consulted on the exhibit. “And so that Delaware family gave her this buffalo horn spoon for her to forever remember them by.”

According to the exhibit, it was only during the 1770s, and the coming of the American revolution, that white colonizers turned definitively against trying to live with indigenous people and began seeking to exterminate them instead.

In 1778, the fledgling United States signed the Treaty of Fort Pitt, the first between the U.S. and any native tribe. The new country quickly violated its terms, however, and indigenous people continued moving west.

Yet as the exhibit notes, hundreds of members of the Seneca Nation still lived in Western Pennsylvania — at least until the 1960s, when, in violation of yet another treaty, the federal government built the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River three hours north of Pittsburgh. With much of their farmland flooded, the Seneca relocated to New York.

But in some sense, the legacy of the Native Americans of Allegheny remains alive. Museum educator Emarthla said the bonds formed among Allegheny’s various tribes starting so long ago persist today.

“The history of Fort Pitt plays a huge role into understanding those relationships … and that we’ve always kind of stayed in touch,” she said.

“Homeland” also includes samples of contemporary indigenous culture, including beaded moccasins from the 1930s and a Seneca-Cayuga boy’s dance outfit.

The exhibit will run through 2025.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: