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Exploring Native American history, culture

When most people think of Western New York's Native American population, casinos, cheap gas and cigarettes often come to mind. But that's not what Native American culture and heritage is about. To learn more, there are a number of places in our area you can visit.

But first, a brief history. New York State was once occupied by the Iroquois Nation. 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 1700s, life changed for the Senecas. 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 are 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 the Seneca culture). Since their society is matrilineal, women also play an important role and, in fact, clan status is determined by one's mother.

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 St. The mural, painted in 1998 by renowned Seneca artist Carson Waterman, depicts the face of a clan mother. The date 1794 signifies the year the Iroquois signed the Canandaigua Treaty with the United States. The eight clans of the Seneca Nation are also shown in the mural.

The Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is located in Salamanca. 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.

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), a clan animal display and traditional crafts including baskets made from sweet grass, wood splint, corn husks and birch bark. Also displayed are bead-work items like wampum belts made from shells and beads that were used to carry messages, record history and seal treaties.

The museum has a children's fun room with hands-on activities. There's clothing to try on, basic words to learn and coloring sheets. 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 like 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 farthest wins. Some throws have been known to go a half-mile. Our tour guide explained that this is a game still enjoyed by Seneca men.

A museum gift shop has educational materials, as well as a number of native-created items for sale. Special events this summer include a celebration of the museum's 30th anniversary on Aug. 7.

Another place to learn about Native American culture is at the 277-acre Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, southeast of Rochester. A designated National Historic Landmark, it 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 is 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. 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, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on July 21-22. The event will highlight Native American culture through dance, language, arts, music and history.

The Holland Land Office Museum in Batavia also has a Native American culture display. The museum, along with the Historical Club of the Tonawanda Indian Reservation near Akron, has created the "Tonawanda Senecas" exhibit, which explores how life changed for the Tonawanda Senecas from pre-European contact to the 21st Century. Artifacts on display include baskets, beadwork, 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 Ely Samuel Parker (1828-1895), one of the area's most famous citizens. Born Donehogawa on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, he 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.

Smokin' Joe's on the Tuscarora Reservation near Lewiston may be first thought of as a place to purchase tax-free gas and cigarettes, but it also has a very impressive museum of Native American art, featuring works by well-known native artist Joseph Jacobs. Not only are his sculptures beautiful and ornate, each tells a story about native culture. Information sheets are located next to each work of art.

The adjacent store has handcrafted items including cornhusk dolls, beadwork items and native jewelry.


If you go

Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, 814 Broad St., Salamanca; (716) 945-1760, The museum's summer hours (May to November) are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Ganondagan State Historic Site, 1488 NY 444, Victor; (585) 924-5848, Visitors center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, May 1-Oct. 31. Hiking trails are open 8 a.m. to sunset, year-round.

Holland Land Office Museum, 131 W. Main St., Batavia.; (585) 343-4727, Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, Memorial Day to Labor Day; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays the rest of year. Admission is free.

The Native American Museum of Art at Smokin' Joes, 2293 Saunders Settlement Road, Sanborn; 215-2000, Admission is free.

For information: Salamanca Chamber of Commerce, (716) 945-2034,



A pow wow can best be described as a song and dance competition among tribes from all over the country. There are two such events taking place nearby in July.

*The Thunder Falls Veterans Pow Wow takes place Friday through next Sunday at Seneca Square by the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls. For information, call (866) 873-6322,

*The annual Veterans Pow Wow, sponsored by the Seneca Allegany Casino, takes place July 27-29 in Veteran's Park, 150 Broad St., Salamanca. Everyone is welcome to watch the competition. The event will include native arts and crafts and native food will be sold. Admission is $7 adults, $5 seniors (ages 50-plus) and ages 7-17; children under 6 and veterans are free. Two-day pass is $12. For information, call 945-1790.

For general information:

Christine A. Smyczynski is the author of "Western New York An Explorer's Guide: From Niagara Falls and Southern Ontario to the Western Edge of the Finger Lakes" (The Countryman Press, 2005).

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