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Native son Writer Eric Gansworth feels the weight that comes from being the main living literary voice for a nation and a people -- the Tuscaroras

Growing up, it would have been easy for Eric Gansworth to see his life only for what it lacked.

Proper electrical outlets, for instance. It took Gansworth years to realize that other houses had more than one.

"The whole house was wired by extension cords," said Gansworth, with a rueful laugh. "I didn't know people didn't live that way."

But for Gansworth, life on Niagara County's Tuscarora Reservation was about more than absence. It was a life rich in things that mattered.

A deep-rooted native heritage. A tightly woven family of seven siblings, centered around a beloved mother. A good sense of humor. And -- the icing on the cake -- a talent for writing.

"Nothing about my life has been typical," said Gansworth, 40. "I've learned that."

Today, Gansworth stands at a crossroads as a writer.

He's done well, with fiction and poetry that's filled four published volumes to date, plus one more book about to appear and several more in the writing stage. He holds the position of Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College, where he's a professor of English.

But while he's in a good place as a writer, Gansworth's also beginning to feel the subtle weight that comes from being the main living literary voice for a nation and a people -- the Tuscaroras.

He's one of very few people to give voice to this native experience in contemporary America.

"There are people in the community who do write, but they aren't publishing on the scale that Eric is," said Wendy N. Huff, coordinator of the Western Consortium of the State University of New York's Native American program. "He's a role model for other writers who are native."

At the same time, Gansworth struggles with the difficulty of writing about a people that he lives alongside and among -- including his family and friends.

"I've wrestled with that," said Gansworth, who shows up for an afternoon coffee wearing a black leather jacket, jeans and combat boots. "I thought, maybe what I should do is just invent a reservation. But I finally said, I can't -- because to do that would be to alter what I do drastically.

"I've got a very keen awareness," he said, "of place."

>Always an outsider

And the place he's most aware of is, of course, Western New York.

The youngest of seven, Gansworth attended Tuscarora Indian School on the reservation -- where he was among the first to learn the Tuscarora language in special classes for modern-day students -- and then to Niagara-Wheatfield High School, where he graduated in 1983.

Even in these insular worlds, Gansworth was a double outsider. Outsider status No. 1 came from being Native American in the first place, and growing up on the reservation -- in an "asymmetrical and strange" house his grandfather had built on what was, as Gansworth later learned, the poorer end of the reservation.

Outsider status No. 2 came from the fact that Gansworth's family is actually Onondaga, not Tuscarora -- a difference which set him apart even from other kids on the tiny reservation.

The Tuscarora Reservation, a nine-square-mile plot of land, was home to 1,138 people in the last census count -- making it about half the size of the Cattaraugus Reservation of Senecas.

Of the people living on Tuscarora land, 18 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree, and the median household income in 2000 was $32,500. A total of 13 percent of people were living in poverty at that time, census figures showed; still, poverty levels on other reservations in Western New York are substantially higher.

Gansworth's Onondaga blood comes from two Onondaga women who lived with the Tuscaroras in Western New York in the 1700s. He is descended from one of the women.

As a child, Gansworth felt those differences, especially after he entered school.

"We were Onondaga. We were just different," said Gansworth, whose six siblings still live on the reservation.

He struggles often, he confessed, with the idea that he might somehow hurt his family members by even talking about those experiences; he wants to maintain their privacy as much as he can.

Today, Gansworth lives in Niagara Falls, about 10 minutes away from the home on Mount Hope Road where he grew up.

On the reservation, some Tuscaroras said his work has value just for existing -- because it brings the culture into the public consciousness.

"We fight all the time for the smallest ground," said Neil Patterson, a Tuscarora who is director of the nation's environmental program. "I think his work has a really important value. Most of the concepts and policies and attitudes toward all of the six nations in New York State are those of neglect and misunderstanding.

"Any sort of exchange helps to increase that understanding."

>Motivational history

Gansworth's never really left Western New York -- he doesn't like change of any kind, he's quick to point out -- for any length of time. This is where he feels most at home, most himself.

His own college studies were done close to the reservation at Niagara County Community College ("I hitchhiked, found ways to get there") where he got a degree in electroencephalography, the study of brain waves, and then at Buffalo State College, where he earned a master's degree in 1990.

His family wanted him to go into the medical field, but by that point Gansworth had already felt the pull of the written word.

He began to publish poems and short stories -- "The Ballad of Plastic Fred" was an early one, about a boy and a plastic toy Indian -- that gave voice to the Native American experience, as filtered through a Tuscarora lens.

In 1998, Gansworth published a novel, "Indian Summers." Here's the first paragraph of Chapter One, which deals with the Tuscarora Reservation and nearby Lewiston:

Some of the most curious things happen on the reservation. Last summer, one morning about six o'clock, my mom heard this horrible crunching noise out on her front lawn. She went out to see that there was a pretty new Trans Am sitting in our bushline, the engine revving and the tires digging deep grooves in her lawn. She walked up and saw that the driver was some nicely dressed white kid, no more than 17, she suspected. She said he looked like he came from Lewiston, the snobby village just below the reservation.

Gansworth's writing is motivated by the ideas of loss and legacy: what native peoples like the Tuscarora have been stripped of, what they've let escape.

For the Tuscaroras, a major historical moment of loss happened in the late 1950s, when a large portion of their reservation land -- about 10 percent -- was taken over by the state for use in the Power Project. The Tuscaroras fought the takeover in court but lost. That loss has generated much anger and sadness.

"The average person knows cheap gas and cheap cigarettes and casinos," said Patterson, the Tuscarora nation director. "And his work grapples with that -- the mainstream perception of Indians, and reconciling that with the reality."

While that's serious stuff, Gansworth has learned that he can approach subjects in an unexpected way -- using humor -- and make his points very effectively.

"It's a very humor-driven culture," he said, of the Tuscarora experience. "Even in its most terrible times, the most significant discourse is humor.

"I hope that's more productive than being somebody who's just ranting all the time."

At a reading last November at Fredonia State College, Gansworth had people rolling in the aisles during a reading of his work, Huff said.

"He has a great sense of humor," said Huff, a Seneca from the Cattaraugus Reservation. "He brings to life characters that are common in our community. It's really enjoyable to read his work."

Underlying Gansworth's work, she said, is a sense of respect.

"He really respects his culture, and I think that's why he does this type of writing," she said. "You can tell, in his writing, that he loves his background and everything that comes with it."

Gansworth taught for several years at NCCC, before Canisius offered him the position of writer-in-residence and professor. Since "Indian Summers," he's published the books "Smoke Dancing," "Mending Skins," and "Nickel Eclipse: Iroquois Moon." Another, "Breathing the Monster Alive," will be out this year.

>Looking inside

Gansworth is a unique artist, one of not-too-many native writers giving voice to the contemporary Native American experience in fiction, poetry and the visual arts.

Ask him if he sometimes feels limited by the scope of his life -- which is, by extension, the scope of his subject matter -- and he'll answer pragmatically.

"I'm an anti-plot writer. I'm interested in what's happening inside of people, not the outsides."

And the insides of the tiny Tuscarora -- a thousand or so people strong -- gives you enough to fill volumes?

"If you're concerned with writing about the inner lives of people," he said, "1,500 is plenty."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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>Lost (in Translation)

The old man says Haw Oo-nunh-hah-ah

Raw-nee-haw

Weh-rhah-Ke-eh-rheh

"I am listening Whaw-kaw-teh-naw'

to the rain." neh-wheh'-dooj

He is Trah-ya-nueh teh Hek-yeh

this one of Kehn'n nuh Ehh-chee Oo-nuh-skee-uh

one little Ehh-chee uh

two little Nak-dee uh

three little Aww-sehh uh

you know, Sha-nah-reeth

Indians Ihk-wheh-hih-wheh

four little Hit-duhk uh

five little Weesk uh

five little Weesk uh

yes, Naw-hwess

that's it Ha nuh hek-yeh T'wa'hn

five little Weesk uh

Indians who speak Ihk-wheh-hih-wheh

Koh-na Ah-kah Weh Ree-uhk

the Tuscarora language Ska-rhu-rheh

-- Excerpt from "Lost (in Translation)" by Eric Gansworth, previously published in American Indian Quarterly

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