Monroeville Historical Society sheds light on Native American presence in early Pennsylvania



Ghost in the Head handed his gourd canteen to Elvis Cyburt. He asked the 11-year-old to compare the weight of the Native American container, made from a hard-shelled vegetable, with that of a small European-style water cask. The half-gallon wooden barrel was bound with iron straps.

"Way lighter," Elvis said of the traditional container.

"Which one would you rather carry for miles on a forest trail?" Ghost in the Head asked.

Elvis, who lives in Ocean City, Md., is visiting his grandmother, Patricia Leonard, of Monroeville, for the summer. He was among the dozens of children and adults who learned about Native America life from Ghost in the Head on Sunday at a Monroeville Historical Society event.

Ghost in the Head, also known as Todd Johnson of McKeesport, is of Huron ancestry. Dressed in Native American clothing and jewelry of the frontier era, he has been sharing information about Indian culture since the 1990s. "It gives me a chance to utilize traditional skills and abilities in a real-world fashion," he said of his presentations.

Audience members appeared impressed, peppering him with dozens of questions about clothes, tools, foods, personal adornments and a fearsome collection of weapons.

Ghost in the Head pointed out the unique design on the ball-shaped head of one wooden club. The club, decorated with an image representing its owner, served as a practical weapon in combat and a deadly calling card. It would be left behind whenever "a point of disagreement" over land ownership resulted in violence, he said. An attack on settlers was a last resort. Native Americans traditionally offered three increasingly forceful warnings before striking, he said.

Native Americans also were quick to adapt western technology, and Ghost in the Head explained differences in a variety of tomahawks and axes.

Ghost in the Head set up his wigwam between the Historical Society's 19th-century stone farmhouse and nearby log house. He built the traditional Woodland Indian shelter on a frame of tree branches covered with the leaves of cattails. Tree bark also was often used to keep out wind and rain. Animal pelts from bear, deer and mountain lion were draped on the fence around his wigwam.

Besides meeting with Ghost in the Head, visitors to the afternoon event had a chance to taste Native American foods and try their hands at crafts.

Connie McClain of Monroeville oversaw the campfire preparation of venison stew, crayfish with wild rice and corn bread. "I just like to cook," the longtime volunteer said.

Nearby, Derrick Senteza, 11, his brother, Devon, 9, and their cousin Anicet Mwambu, 4, were busy decorating rainsticks with Native American symbols. "I'm really interested in Indian culture and how they dressed," Derrick said.

"We saw this as a unique program that would help us promote local history," Lynn Chandler said of Ghost in the Head's you-are-there on the Pennsylvania frontier presentation. She is president of the historical society.

The historical society's early 19th-century houses are at 2381 McGinley Road, southeast of Forbes Regional Hospital. Monroeville owns the buildings and land, and the society operates the exhibit.

The society's next program will be a talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Monroeville Public Library. Ernest D. Spisak will discuss his new book, "Pittsburgh's Forgotten Civil War Regiment: A History of the 62nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry."

More information is available at the society's website: monroevillehistorical.org, or by calling 724-327-6164.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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