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This is a piece showing the Pontiac signing a treaty after the Battle of Bushy Run.
This is a piece showing the Pontiac signing a treaty after the Battle of Bushy Run. Photo: MPI/Getty Images.

PA battlefield must now consult Native groups before reenactments and programs portraying Native Americans

Bushy Run Battlefield Park near Pittsburgh announced the new policy over the weekend.

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Native Americans historically have been mistreated, culturally appropriated, and been the subjects of many other offenses. Whether at the hands of the U.S. government, land conquerors, or just the people that live near them, it has been a longstanding issue that has been handled by giving back land and providing reparations, but ultimately, the relief has not changed much and the group is still one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. 

One of the more popular ways of culturally appropriating the group has been by way of battle reenactments. This also includes programs that portray the people. 

The historic Bushy Run Battlefield Park in Jeanette, PA, has been famous for its reenactments and portrayal of Native Americans, but times have changed and there’s a new policy to abide by for any reenactment. 

The Battle of Bushy Run was part of Pontiac’s War, fought in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, and saw a column of 500 British soldiers engaged by a combined force of Native American warriors on their way to relieve soldiers at Fort Pitt, located on the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, who oversees the park, has implemented a new policy that any future programs or reenactments of the battle must come after consulting local Native groups. Additionally the park has to submit its plans to the commission in writing, where they will be approved or denied. 

That is, if the park wants to continue its program. 

Bonnie Ramus, President of the Bushy Run Battlefield Heritage Society, which runs the park, received a complaint that was made to the state historical commission from a man who lives in another state. This man is of Native American heritage and told the commission he found the portrayal and reenactments of Natives by non-Native Americans to be offensive and disrespectful. 

Ramus said the complaint led to a phone call from PHMC officials on Friday, Aug. 5. They requested that she cancel the reenactments planned for Aug. 6-7. Ramus told the Tribune-Review that she would not cancel, citing many reenactors already being camped out at the park. 

Director of External Affairs for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Howard Pollman released a statement on Friday, Aug. 12:

“Our colleagues who represent the sovereign tribal nations have expressed significant concerns about and objections to the Battle of Bushy Run reenactment. To continue this programming without evaluation and significant input from those tribes connected to the battle would go against the best practices and ethics of the public history field and would be a sign of disrespect to those who have voiced their opposition to this event. It also undermines the Commonwealth’s efforts over the past two years to develop channels for communications and to establish trust with these sovereign nations.” 

Pollman says any future reenactments or portrayals of Native Americans will from now on require written authorization from the PHMC as well as consult with Native tribes that are federally recognized. In defending the reenactment, Ramus said the reenactors are “committed historians,” who emphasize the idea of accuracy. Over 1,600 people participated in the most recent two-day event. 

Pollman said the PHMC “has placed a moratorium on interpretation and events portraying Native Americans, unless the relevant federally recognized tribes have been consulted.” 

“We have been working to develop paths for collaboration with these tribes and will have them in place soon for PHMC employees and associate groups,” he said. “Until then, such events, programming and other platforms of interpretation are temporarily restricted.” 

During the recent reenactment that Ramus declined to stop, she said that the park would be willing to work with any groups. She would welcome them to come by and educate them on what is being done or portrayed wrongly. 

A board member of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center in Pittsburgh, Miguel Sague Jr. said that while the council or himself has never had any issues with the reenactments, he personally dislikes the idea of non-Native Americans playing the role of a Native American. 

“I can see their point of view,” said Sague Jr. “They might not be able to find enough Native people to fight a whole battle. Native Americans are not into that kind of thing. We’ve evolved. We’re more interested in what we’re doing now.”

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