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Rediscovering simplicity with lost Native American skills

| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 8:54 p.m.
Andy Ruffner shows  youth camp members how to start a fire.
Patrick Kopnicky
Andy Ruffner shows youth camp members how to start a fire. Patrick Kopnicky
A display by Andy Ruffner includes a quiver, powder horn,  moccasins on tanned deer hide.
Patrick Kopnicky
A display by Andy Ruffner includes a quiver, powder horn, moccasins on tanned deer hide.

In our modern life, suggests Andy Ruffner, we have lost touch with living simply with the natural world.

That, the Buffalo Township resident believes, is one of the reasons many remain fascinated with American Indian culture.

“Native Americans still represent mystery, bravery and all things wild. Some people are fascinated and envious at the same time that Native American not only survived but thrived with no modern equipment,” says Ruffner, who presents his popular “Lost Indian Arts Rediscovered” program at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Environmental Learning Center in Harrison Hills Park, Natrona Heights.

He will discuss and illustrate how Native Americans used the land and animals to live and survive in the wilderness, and will demonstrate the process of making arrowheads, “brain-tanning” a hide, fire-starting, fashioning tools from bone and stone and offering examples of porcupine quilling, among other skills.

The Thanksgiving period and the location are an especially appropriate time and place for the presentation say Patrick and Mardelle Kopnicky of the sponsoring Friends of Harrison Hills.

The park was, at one time, Indian territory. “Everything west of the Allegheny River was Indian lands,” Patrick Kopnicky says. “Andy's interest is in Indian lore and techniques prior to the influence of the white man.”

His programs sometimes are standing-room only. “His enthusiasm is very contagious. He can captivate the audience quickly with his stories and examples of Indian crafts that he has made, exactly as they did in the past,” Kopnicky says.

Native Americans lived off the land by hard work and never wasting any natural resource or animal, Mardelle Kopnicky says. “They worked together as a family and community,” she says.

Ruffner's family's interest in the subject fueled his passion and lifelong self-taught study of the culture. He recalls with fondness the childhood hikes with his dad (Andy “Tink” Ruffner of Freeport) along the banks of the Allegheny River searching for arrowheads, just as his grandfather, Paul Ruffner, did with his children.

Father and son still search for arrowheads together, surface hunting in corn fields in the region. His advice: “The best place to look are on rises in a field with water close by. Start looking for flint. Once you find flint, you'll find arrowheads.”

They have found upward of several hundred artifacts during the years. “Some are good, some not so good, all are unique,” Ruffner says. He will have some of them at Sunday's program, along with arrowheads, buckskin clothing and other items he has fashioned as the Indians did. He has been making arrowheads for about 10 years, giving many away.

“We all wish that we could be so independent, capable of surviving on our own as the Indians did,” Patrick Kopnicky says. “It's a marvel how they did this so well, and, yet, were so in tune with nature, preserving it for their next generation.”

Ruffner's presentation provides an appreciation for the past, Kopnicky says. “This is information not readily available in books or magazines,” Kopnicky says.

Ruffner, an emergency-room nurse at UMPC St. Margaret, says he likes to see “the lights go on” in the faces of his audiences when he answers their questions. “I am not the foremost expert on Native Americans, but I enjoy all the aspects of Indian life,” he says. He believes people of all ages with “a healthy respect for the outdoors” and learning will especially appreciate his program.

He enjoys seeing the expressions when he explains the process of “brain tanning.” “People think I'm crazy, until they feel the finished product,” he says. The brains of deer and many other mammals contain oils that make an effective tanning agent because it is not broken down by contact with human skin, he says. Many cultures have used brain-tanning on animal skins.

He says that buckskin, made with the brain-tanning method, was the cloth of choice during pioneer days. It is higher-quality leather, he says, which must be fashioned by hand.

Porcupine quilling involves the softening and dying of the animal's quills for decoration on moccasins, bags and clothing.

The one piece of Indian creativity that intrigues him the most is the beauty, simplicity and functionality of the birch-bark canoe. It is made from easily gathered material from the forest, lightweight, easily repairable and had no European counterpart, he says. “They are still made today. How about that for enduring?”

“What impresses me the most about the Indian cultures is that they lived in harmony with everything around them for thousands of years,” Ruffner says. “In our short history of America, not only have we pushed away the natural work, we forgot how to use it. Their knowledge of wild resources was second to none and, unfortunately, so much has been lost.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or

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