The beginnings of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center Inc. (COTRAIC) is like many organizations—one that started with a small idea that grew.
In 1969, a young woman who joined the Peace Corps was lonely. Jody Simms posted a note on her door that read, “If there are any other Native American people here, please come see me.”
Soon she had a response, and despite the fact that they were miles from home, she and the person who responded found out that they lived only 10 blocks away from each other back in Pittsburgh. “They didn’t know each other before that,” said Russell Simms, executive director and cofounder of COTRAIC, who is also Jody’s brother.
When Jody returned to Pittsburgh, she felt the need to create a space for Native Americans to gather and get to know other like-minded people. “The seeds were sown in 1970 with these two Native American families,” said Simms, referring to the Simms and Hayes families.
The first meeting, which Simms admits he didn’t take seriously, was held in the home of his other sister, Tomi Simms. “When my sister asked me to help I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,”—and the reason that I said that was because we had lived here all of these years and we didn’t know anyone, so how all of a sudden were all these Native American people going to show up?” he said.
But Simms was wrong. The first meeting had so many people show up that his sister asked Simms if she could host the next meeting in the empty second floor of his auto parts shop. “I was honestly shocked to see that many Native Americans in the city of Pittsburgh,” Simms said.
Over the next few years, the gatherings and services expanded. “It grew so quickly just by word of mouth,” Simms said. Today, the nonprofit provides services in four states and has more than 170 employees.
According to Simms, the issues behind the creation of the council were ones that are common to all Native Americans—feelings of apathy, of “floating” in the mainstream, being dispersed and isolated, being denied Native birthrights, being discriminated against, being looked upon as ‘others’ and being deprived both culturally and otherwise.
“The idea was to create a supportive environment, allowing members to maintain a sense of their ‘Indianness,’” Simms said, as well as to enable them to become more aware of their rights as urban and rural Native Americans, and to preserve their cultures and values.
The council became a nonprofit in 1972 and moved to its location in Dorseyville in 1976. After outgrowing the second floor of Simms’ auto parts store, they searched for a new, larger site and learned of an abandoned Nike missile site. After an intensive application process, they were awarded the location in 1976. “We had to maintain the site for 30 years and then it was turned over to us,” Simms said.
The council fulfills their mission through various services including an Early Head Start program, Head Start and Pre-K, Elder Program, Native American Training & Employment Program, food pantry, Greater Hazelwood Family Center, and the Native American Community which includes programs such as Community Days and the annual Pow Wow. The center itself is located in Dorseyville.
Two important components of the council are their Speaker’s Bureau and Land Acknowledgement services. “These have recently become very popular and are one way we can help educate,” Simms said.
The Native American Training & Employment program has grown leaps and bounds over the past 50 years. The council began serving the Pittsburgh region and is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, Division of Indian and Native American Programs under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The council did such a good job that the federal government asked them to expand to other areas, and it now provides workplace training not only in Pennsylvania, but in West Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky.
While the heart of the council’s work is to serve the Native American community, only two programs are strictly limited to this population. Simms explained that the history of many Native American families, like most families in the United States, is complicated, with many marriages and relationships outside of the community. When someone pointed out that excluding non-Native Americans from programming could actually be dividing families, Simms said that they pivoted to offer most services to families and friends.
“If we have people who need services and want to learn, we want to help them,” he said.
The exceptions are the Workplace and Training Program and the Elders Program. The workplace programming is designed to serve Native Americans, a traditionally underserved population, and the Elders Programming is designed to serve a unique community, Simms explained.
“The Elders are special—they are wise and respected. When they speak you listen,” he said. “This programming is for them.”
Since one of the major aspects of the council is to provide a safe, nonjudgmental area for Native Americans, they are careful of how ‘Native American’ is defined. “It’s an Indian Center, a place to call our own and the right to be a Native American varies,” said Simms.
“We are urbanites and we are rural people. We are many Native American cultures and we don’t live on a reservation, so we may be harder to define. We have to learn to respect each other’s culture,” he said.
And having specific, clear-cut definitions can itself create issues, Simms explained. “We don’t want to be part of the problem, we want to be part of the solution,” he said. “Serving one Native American is as important as serving 10,000.”
The Council’s annual Pow Wow, now in its 43rd year, is one of their major events. “The Pow Wow is a gathering of Native people to compete, learn and enjoy each other’s company,” said Simms. “Because it is a representation of so many cultures, it is so much more than just entertainment.”
The event, which is scheduled for Sept. 24 from noon-9 p.m. and Sept. 25 from noon-7 p.m., will feature Native American cultural and historical activities including drum and dance contests. Native American foods and other menu items will also be available.
The public is welcome to attend the Pow Wow. “We invite the public to come for education, to share, and to come out on the arena floor to dance with us on certain dances,” said Simms, adding that the master of ceremonies will explain the regalia, the dance competitions and more.
For more information about the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, including information on the Pow Wow, visit www.cotraic.org.