When most people think of Western New York’s Native American population the first thought that often comes to mind is casinos and cheap gas and cigarettes. However, that is not what their culture and heritage is all about. There are a number of places in our area where one can go learn more about their interesting culture.
A brief history All of the state was once occupied by the Iroquois Nation and one group, the Seneca Nation, known as the “Keepers of the Western Door,” lived in the western portion of the state. After European settlers began arriving in the 1700’s, life changed for the Senecas and treaties had to be negotiated to protect Seneca land.
The Big Tree Treaty in 1797 established reservations. Today, there are four Seneca and one Tuscarora reservation in our region. The Seneca Reservations include the Tonawanda Reservation near Akron, the Cattaraugus Reservations near Gowanda, the Allegany Reservations in Salamanca and the Oil Spring Reservation near Cuba. The Tuscarora Reservation is located near Lewiston.
There are eight clans among the Seneca: bear, beaver, turtle, wolf, deer, hawk, heron and snipe. Animals play an important part of their culture. Since their society is matrilineal, clan status is determined by ones mother and women play an important role in their society.
Places to learn more about native culture
The best place to learn more about native culture is in Salamanca, the only city in the world which is located entirely on an Indian Reservation. Native American culture is evident throughout the city. Look for the mural, “Clan Mother Bonds All Nation,” located at 54 Main Street. The mural, painted in 1998 by renowned Seneca artist, Carson Waterman, depicts the face of a clan mother. The date 1794 signifies the date when the Iroquois signed the Canandaigua Treaty with the United States. The eight clans of the Seneca Nation are also shown in the mural.
Located in Salamanca is the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It was created by Seneca elders to reaffirm traditions and beliefs for younger Senecas. It is also a place where non-natives can go to learn more about Native American culture.
I visited the museum awhile ago and learned many things that I had never known about the Senecas. Displays include a model of a partial longhouse; a full size longhouse was often the size of a football field and could house 50 to 60 people. There is also a clan animal display, along with traditional crafts, like baskets made from sweet grass, wood splint, corn husks and birch bark, and bead work items, like wampum belts, which were made from shells and beads. These belts were used to carry messages, record history and seal treaties.
I also learned that the reservations have their own government system; they are a sovereign nation within a nation. The Seneca Nation was one of the first democracies. Their government structure is said to have influence the U.S. founding fathers when they were establishing our system of government.
The museum has a children’s fun room, with hands-on activities, including clothing to try on, coloring sheets and basic words to learn. The Seneca language is actually offered as an option to native students attending public schools in the Silver Creek, Lakeshore, Salamanca, Gowanda, and Akron school systems, so that the language doesn’t die out.
The museum also has displays on Native American pastimes, for example the game of snow snake, where a trough the size of a rain gutter is made in the snow. A waxed wooden “snake” is thrown down the trough and the one that goes the furthest wins. Some throws have been known to go a half-mile. Our tour guide explained that this is a game that is still enjoyed by Seneca men today as a men’s night out for all generations. The museum shop has educational materials, as well as a number of native-created items for sale.
Special events this summer include a visit by Robert Griffing, a non-native artist whose art accurately and in great detail depicts the Eastern Woodland Indians of the 18th Century. He will be at the museum June 23 from 12-4 pm. A number of Griffing’s prints are on display in the museum’s West Gallery. There will also be festivities at the museum on August 7th to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the museum.
Another Native American event that will be taking place in Salamanca this summer is the annual Pow Wow, sponsored by the Seneca Allegany Casino, which will take place July 27-29 in Veteran’s Park. A Pow Wow can best be described as a song and dance competition among tribes from all over the country. Natives, as well as non-natives, are welcome to come and watch the competition; an admission fee is charged. Also on display are native arts and crafts and there is native food for sale. A similar Pow Wow will take place July 6-8 at Seneca Square by the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls.
Another place to learn about Native American culture is at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, which is southeast of Rochester. This 277 acre site, a designated National Historic Landmark, was the site of a 17th Century Seneca village, known as the Town of Peace. The village had about 150 longhouses and a population of 4,500. It was attacked and destroyed by the French in 1687. The site was formally dedicated on July 14, 1987, 300 years to the day after it was destroyed.
On the grounds, you’ll find a full size replica of a Seneca bark longhouse, which is furnished as it would have been in 1670. There are also three hiking trails on the grounds. The visitor’s center has exhibits on the Seneca clan system, artwork and a video on the history of the site.
Upcoming events at Ganondagan include the Native American Dance and Music Festival on July 21-22 from 10-6 each day. The event will highlight Native American culture through dance, language, arts, music and history.
Another museum that has a display on Native American culture is the Holland Land Office Museum in Batavia. The museum, along with the Historical Club of the Tonawanda Indian Reservation near Akron, has created an exhibit, “Tonawanda Senecas,” which explores how life changed for the Tonawanda Senecas from pre-European contact to the 21st Century. Artifacts on display include baskets, beadworks, maps, pictures and tools, including arrowheads and even sports equipment. Seneca warriors played a game with a long racket called Dehonchigwiis to help them prepare for battle. The French referred to this game as Lacrosse, a game popular with native and non-native athletes today.
The museum also has a display on Native American Ely Samuel Parker (1828-1895) one of the areas most famous citizens. Born Do-ne-ho-ga-wa on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, he joined the military and served as military secretary under General Ulysses S. Grant. Parker was instrumental in drafting the final terms of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox at the end of the Civil War. He was later commissioned a brigadier general and appointed the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs by President Grant in 1869.
While Smokin’ Joe’s on the Tuscarora Reservation near Lewiston is often thought of as a place to purchase tax-free gas and cigarettes, they do have a very impressive museum of Native American art, which features many works by Joseph Jacobs, a well-known native artist. Not only are his sculptures beautiful and ornate, each tells a story about native culture. There are information sheets next to each work of art that explains the meaning behind it. The adjacent store has handcrafted items including cornhusk dolls, beadwork items and native jewelry.
Salamanca Chamber of Commerce (716-945-2034; www.salamancachamber.com ) 26 Main Street, Salamanca
Seneca Iroquois National Museum (716-945-1760; www.senecamuseum.org) 814 Broad Street, Salamanca. The museum’s summer hours, May to November, are Monday to Saturday 9-5, Sunday 12-5.
Seneca Allegany Pow Wow (716-945-1790) Veterans Park, 150 Broad Street, Salamanca. July27-29. Friday 4:30-10 (free admission Friday only). Saturday 10-9, Sunday 10-6:30. $7/ adult, $5/seniors (50+) and children 7-17, children under 6 and veterans are free. Two-day pass $12.
Seneca Niagara Pow Wow (1-866-873-6322) Seneca Niagara Square, Niagara Falls.
Ganondagan State Historic Site (585-924-5848; www.ganondagan.org) 1488 NY 444, Victor. Visitors center open May 1-October 31 9-5 daily. Hiking trails open year-round, 8 am- sunset.
Holland Land Office Museum (585-343-4727; www.hollandlandoffice.com) 131 W. Main Street, Batavia. Memorial Day to Labor Day Open Monday-Saturday 10-4, Tuesday to Saturday 10-4 rest of year. Free admission.
The Native American Museum of Art at Smokin’ Joes (716-215-2000; www.smokinjoe.com) 2293 Saunders Settlement Rd., Sanborn. Free Ad