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Seneca nation to participate in Bushy Run battle commemoration

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 11:24 a.m.

In addition to re-enactors and large crowds of observers, the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Bushy Run will feature a delegation from the Seneca Nation of Indians — its first significant visit to western Pennsylvania in nearly 70 years.

Spurred by a desire to involve their youths in living-history projects, the Seneca are coming from western New York this weekend to partake in the milestone anniversary of the battle, which included Seneca warriors.

Elders and teenagers in the nation will be among the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people whom Bushy Run Battlefield Heritage Society officials say will converge in Harrison City this weekend for a series of events commemorating the two-day battle in Pontiac's Rebellion that came after fighting in the French and Indian War.

The Seneca participation will include a traditional Burying of the Hatchet ceremony Saturday near the battlefield amphitheater, where society officials are dedicating a new monument honoring the dead among the British soldiers, two Scottish Highlander regiments who fought with the British and the Native Americans, said Jay Toth, a member of the Seneca Nation. The Native American warriors were Seneca, Delaware and Shawnee.

At the request of the Seneca, the landscaping around the amphitheater will feature a “tree of peace,” a white pine. Its five needles are symbolic of the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Members of the nation reached out to the heritage society a few months ago to ask to be included in the anniversary events.

Originally, a Seneca youth committee considered taking a canoe trip on the Allegheny River to visit sites such as Fort Pitt, said Toth, an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Toth, who received his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, said the nation is “trying to get their face back out there” because some people associate Native Americans only with reservation casinos.

“It's always been a custom and tradition of tribes to pay honor, and it's been 250 years since we've been there,” Toth said. “Those warriors that died. We need to go there and offer our condolences.”

The Seneca involvement this weekend, including the scheduled appearance of past tribal council President Maurice John, might be their most significant participation in southwestern Pennsylvania in nearly 70 years.

Toth said he thinks the last major visit by the nation in western Pennsylvania was when some Seneca traveled from the reservation to appear as extras in Cecil B. DeMille's “Unconquered,” the 1947 movie set around Fort Pitt during the time of the French and Indian War and Pontiac's Rebellion. Some scenes were filmed along the Kiskiminetas River and in Cook Forest State Park.

Historians at the Fort Pitt and Fort Ligonier museums say various events usually attract some Native American participation, but they couldn't remember recent large-scale involvement by a nation along the lines of what the Seneca are doing.

There is a tradition of native participation in some anniversaries as far back as 1913 and 1914, but the filming of “Unconquered” probably was among the last times the Seneca sent some people here, said Alan Gutchess, director of the Fort Pitt Museum, which has a new exhibit on the film opening on Aug. 10.

But there has been an increase in “cultural-revitalization” efforts by some nations within the past decade to increase their profiles and take advantage of opportunities to portray their ancestors, Gutchess said.

Within the past month, members of the Seneca came to Westmoreland County to meet with members of the battlefield heritage society, said Kelly Ruoff, chairwoman of society's anniversary committee.

“They knew their tribe had been part of (the battle), and I think they really wanted to attach themselves to a site that is important to their history,” she said.

“We welcome them. It's a wonderful honor to have them come.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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