Town hall highlights culture, history of Indigenous nations in Pittsburgh


Image courtesy of Seo-Yeon Lee

Attendees at an event Monday evening meant to highlight Native American culture and history within what is now western Pennsylvania.

By Betul Tuncer, Senior Staff Writer

Miguel Sague opened Pitt’s Resident Student Association town hall with a retelling of a Seneca legend, in which a woman from the village in the sky formed the land that is referred to as “Turtle Island” in Lake Erie with the help of a great turtle, a muskrat and other animals.

“The sky woman gets up and starts walking around, walking around and her magic made that dirt grow and grow and grow until it covered the whole [turtle] shell,” Sague, a Cuban-American of Taino descent, said. “Now there was land and she planted the seeds and out grew all the plants that we see on this island, on the turtle’s back.”

According to Sague, who is also on the board of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, the Seneca legend is important in understanding the culture and beliefs of Indigenous people in the Pittsburgh area because it describes the Seneca’s creation beliefs.

RSA, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Cross Cultural & Leadership Development hosted an event titled “On Power and Honor: Conversations on the Recognition and Celebration of Native American Heritage in Pittsburgh” on Monday evening to highlight Native American culture and history within what is now western Pennsylvania and acknowledge issues that Indigenous people face today.

Along with the land acknowledgement and legend presentation, the program also included a discussion panel with Sague, Tessa Provins and Randi Congleton, the assistant vice chancellor of the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Sague said cooperative work is present within many Indigenous cultures, and can be seen through depictions of hero stories where there is rarely ever only one hero. He noted this important element of Indigenous culture to acknowledge that resolving social justice issues and systematic inequalities is a collaborative effort.

“In my search for what made our people unique, I realized that one of the most important elements of what we do is that we value cooperation and collaboration,” Sague said.

Provins, a member of the Choctaw nation and assistant professor of political science, said it is important that people learn, listen to, respect and remember Indigenous people and their cultures, belief systems, issues and “unique stories” in order to change the systems of inequality that they face.

“Once we start learning, we also need to start really listening and being impactful. You can’t make impactful change without now knowing who you’re trying to help, and listening to what they need, not what you want,” Provins said.

According to Provins, Indigenous people in the U.S. face high rates of unemployment, poverty, suicide, police violence and incarceration, along with low rates of measured educational achievement, medical insurance coverage, voter registration and turnout per capita compared to other racial and ethnic minorities.

She said in order to fix these structural inequities and prevent past atrocities from happening again, people and governments must take the time and effort to bring about change.

“The relationships that need to be built and rebuilt with Native American tribes is going to take time and continuous thoughtful and respectful efforts from people, and that is so important to remember, that these aren’t just things that we can fix overnight,” Provins said.

As a way to help educate the Pitt community about Indigenous issues and celebrate Native American heritage within Pittsburgh, RSA shared a resource guide at the event. The working list provides links to Indigenous organizations in the area as well as various educational resources regarding Indigenous history and issues.
Danielle Obisie-Orlu, the president of RSA, said it is important to relearn and unlearn history and issues when approaching restorative justice.

“We have a resource document that starts the process and continues the process of learning and unlearning, which is excellent,” Obisie-Orlu said.

With Thanksgiving next week, Sague and Provins both said people who do choose to celebrate Thanksgiving should take time to acknowledge erasure of Native history from Thanksgiving narratives.

Provins said people should remember to educate themselves and others about Indigenous peoples, their cultures and their long history on the land on which Americans reside.

“Acknowledge that we have some revisionist history that’s going on surrounding this particular holiday, and share those with whoever you’re doing Thanksgiving with,” Provins said. “And spread some positive and real information about things, because we start overturning these things by actually getting information.”

In her closing remarks, Provins said it is crucial to note that Indigenous people are “incredibly strong” and that although the issues they face must be addressed, people need to also acknowledge all the positive things that they accomplish, such as their involvement in climate mitigation and active work to help improve their communities.

“This isn’t a people that we should only think about in negative frames, because there are so many amazing, wonderful, beautiful, positive things about them. And we can actually learn from them with regard to this and the communities that they’ve built,” Provins said.