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Buffalo Township man revives lost Indian arts and crafts

Mary Ann Thomas

As a child walking along the Allegheny River with his father, Andy Ruffner scoured the shores for arrowheads.

Now the 34-year-old Buffalo Township residents re-creates those arrowheads and other Native American lost arts for a show from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Environmental Learning Center along Chipmunk Drive in Harrison Hills park, Freeport Road in Harrison.

“I learned through a lot of books and trial and error,” says Ruffner, who, in addition to arrowheads, creates buckskin clothing and other items in the same fashion as American Indians did.

Although lacking Native American ancestry, Ruffner pursued learning the Indian crafts as a hobby and a release from an everyday, technologically driven life.

Ruffner works as an emergency-room nurse at UPMC St. Margaret near Aspinwall.

“The technology is part of us, and I wondered how people survived back then,” he says.

Apparently by not wasting anything from the animals they harvested.

Because white-tail deer were plentiful for Native Americans, they ate the meat and organs, and threw nothing away.

Tendons were used for threads; bones were fashioned into tools, even fishing hooks; the guts were made into bowstrings, and the brains were used for tanning.

Information not for the queasy, but the brains of a deer and many other mammals contain oils that make an effective tanning agent, because it is not broken down by contact with human skin.

Over the centuries, many cultures have used brain-tanning methods on animal skins.

Buckskin made by brain tanning was the go-to cloth of pioneer days before denim was worn, according to Ruffner.

“It’s a better leather,” he says. “And it cannot be reproduced by a machine; it must be done by hand.”

Ruffner has been using the technique to make soft buckskins, including crafting a swaddling blanket when his son, Andrew Jr., was born.

Then there’s porcupine quilling, entailing the softening and dying of porcupine quills for decoration on bags, moccasins and clothing.

Of course, Ruffner uses natural materials, such as sumac for red dye, to dye the quills.

“The Indians used the quills before there were beads,” he says.

Ruffner also does “flint knapping” to make his arrowheads, which number about 100.

And there’s much handiwork waiting for Ruffner, including 16 deer hides and one elk, from which he wants to make jackets.

“It’s a lost art,” he says, “and you never know when you might need it.”

Additional Information:

Lost Indian Arts Rediscovered

What: Program presented by Friends of Harrison Hills Park

When: 1-3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Environmental Learning Center, Chipmunk Drive in Harrison Hills Park, Harrison

Admission: $5 donation; reservations preferred

Details: 724-224-4102, or e-mail


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