Oct. 25, 2011
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab
SRU celebrates Native American culture, customs Nov. 3
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – Michael Simms, a member of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, learned the songs and dances of his fellow tribes the old fashioned way: He listened repeatedly until he mastered the words and moves. Simms will bring those customs to Slippery Rock University Nov. 3 as part of the University’s Native American Celebration Day.
SRU traditionally honors Native Americans with a program exhibiting their culture, customs, language, storytelling, dance and music. The daylong program, which opens at 9:30 a.m., in the University Union is in conjunction with the Pittsburgh-based Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center.
“I began learning Native American dances at age 2,” Simms said. His father, Russell Simms is director of the American Indian Center, and his mother, Maria, is also involved.
“It was something we did as a family,” the younger Simms said. “I would go to pow-wows and listen to the songs and learn to sing them. Many of them are really just chants. Sometimes I would tape-record the singers, then go home and listen to them over and over until I learned them. I also have some CDs of Native American songs.”
Simms, who also plays the drum while dancers dance, has been involved with several different drum groups for the last seven years. He has performed at the SRU Native American celebration for the past four years.
A member of the council for the past 25 years, Simms said while some songs are simple chants with no real words, others tell complex stories. “Some songs are in Native American languages, and the story they tell often goes with the style of dance that is being performed.”
For example, “the men’s traditional dance called ‘Sneak Up,’ is a demonstration of the warriors of the tribe ducking and weaving beyond the prairie grass looking for the animal they are hunting. It is played to a ‘rustle’ beat and dancers come out and above the imaginary grass as they get ready to attack the animal,” he said.
“My interest in Native American culture and heritage has allowed me to meet people at a lot of pow-wows and Native American gatherings and to learn a lot about the culture. I have built friendships, and I have learned about what Native Americans wore.”
Simms created his own regalia, which he wears during performances and at pow-wows.
“Most of the outfits are handmade by the owner, or with the help of family and friends – but some people do buy their regalia, or at least parts they can’t make themselves on eBay,” he said. “Most of the time, however, it means sewing by hand, or on a sewing machine, depending on the skill level required.”
“The Indian Center holds a monthly cultural day, which gives youth members time to sit around and drum or work on making parts of their outfit as well as learn the ways and traditions of Native Americans,” Simms said.
His own breastplate is made of hollowed out animal bones, something he says was “the original style of bullet proof vest.”
“Each dancer has an individually-styled staff or wooden pole. Mine has a bone spear on the end of it. Most of the women traditional dancers carry a fan, which has a dual purpose; it is part of their regalia and at hot summer day pow wows can be used to keep cool. The men dancers often have a porcupine head roach made from the guard hair of a porcupine. They use different colors to match their outfit. The council’s summer’s end pow wow typically attract more than 200 members.”
When not involved in Native American meetings and performances, Simms works as an emergency medical technician with Mutual Aid EMS in Greensburg.
The SRU program opens at 9:30 a.m. followed by a Native American Storytelling session at 10 a.m. Traditional dances and songs will be presented at 11 a.m.
“The day will include a 12:30 p.m. address titled ‘Where are All the Indians? You’re Surrounded: Rez, O-Rez and U-Rez Experiences.’ The program includes discussion of Native American Reservations, off reservation, and urban or city reservation life that comprise the various experiences of contemporary Native Americans either in a rural or city reservation setting,” said Frederick White, SRU professor of English. White is a Native American and helped organize the program.
“Native American Orature: ‘We are the Stories We Tell’” will be presented at 2 p.m. and another session of traditional dances and songs follows at 3:30 p.m.
“We have been presenting this celebration to the campus and community for a number of years and it has grown. Youngsters from local schools have been invited to join in the program and our University students always participate as a way of increasing their understanding of other cultures,” White said.
Native American artifacts will be displayed and attendees will have an opportunity to talk with members of the Three Rives Council as part of the celebration.
The SRU program is sponsored by the President’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity; William Williams, SRU provost and vice president of academic affairs; Charles Curry, vice president for finance and administrative affairs; Kathleen Strickland, dean, College of Education; Eva Tsuquiashi-Daddesio, dean, College of Humanities, Fine and Performing Arts; and the departments of sport management, special education, elementary/early childhood, counseling and development, secondary education/foundations of education, physical education, English, dance and history.
The Three Rivers Council was created in 1969 to help regional residents with a need to maintain their sense of “Indian-ness” recapture their roots and become more conscious of their rights as Native Americans. The council operates from offices in Dorseyville, Indiana Township.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania’s premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.