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Artist, writer explores native culture

Not long ago, artist and writer Eric L. Gansworth, 45, received the Niagara County Community College Distinguished Alumnus Award.

The gathering where the award was bestowed raised funds to support the NCCC Foundation, which has awarded millions of dollars in scholarships to students since its inception in 1987, the year after Gansworth graduated.

Buffalo News Poetry Editor R.D. Pohl has called Gansworth, a member of the Onondaga Nation who grew up on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in Lewiston, "Western New York's most prolific indigenous artist and writer, and an increasingly prominent voice on the national scene."

Gansworth earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Buffalo State College and is a full-time professor at Canisius College, where he teaches English. He's served on the board of directors of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, the Arts Council of Buffalo and Erie County, New York State Council on the Arts Literature Panel and the Artists Advisory Committee for the New York Foundation for the Arts.

His art has been displayed at numerous colleges, libraries and galleries, and he's won many honors for his work, which includes poetry collections, novels and plays. Not long ago, Pohl noted that "Extra Indians," Gansworth's latest novel, portrays "a rich tapestry of interwoven narratives that speak to the contemporary Native American experience, both on and off the reservation."

In March, he will have an art show, titled "Home Fires and Reservation Roads," at Oneonta State College and has completed a follow-up novel to "Extra Indians" as well as a new book of poetry.

>You've said you've been "a walking, breathing Rorschach test for others' perceptions and stereotype templates." Will you elaborate?

I have been mistaken for Italian, Armenian, Middle Eastern, Hawaiian, Russian, Polish, German, Portuguese and Jewish, but I am most often wrongly assumed to be Latino.

>Tell us about your boyhood on the reservation?

My mother, like many American Indian parents, allowed her children tremendous freedoms and the responsibilities that came with those freedoms.

>Your mother, Luella Gansworth, at the time of her death several years ago, was the oldest woman of the Onondaga Nation's Eel Clan living on the Tuscarora reservation.

My mother saw the world through her own filters, which had been provided by her parents and grandparents as well, likely supplemented with the teachings of the reservation Baptist Church and those of Indians, people of her parents' generation, who had been shipped off to Carlisle Indian School. She had framed her life the way they had taught her, and she felt it was her duty to perceive and retransmit the world through that mindset.

>Will you speak more of your native roots?

My family and I are enrolled as members of the Onondaga Nation, but our history is inextricably tied to the history of the Tuscaroras.

>And that is?

When the Tuscaroras eventually settled in Western New York, having asked the Haudenosaunee if they could join its confederacy of five nations -- Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga and Oneida -- two Onondaga women left their homeland and traveled with the Tuscaroras to Western New York. This settlement occurred sometime before 1800.

>We understand one of the books you read as a boy in your family home was Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

When I saw a book with this title, I avidly read it, only to discover there was not a single avian murder in the book. Even in my disappointment, though, I understood the implications for race relations in this country and that my future would forever involve similar cross-currents.

>Do you go back to visit your old childhood house?

The electricity-and-plumbing deficient house that was home to my family for 150 years has burned down.

>You've written about the Puritans, who felt Indians "were closer to animals than humans."

Isn't the first step in any holocaust the denial of human status to those who are about to be eliminated?

>We know that other Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), Cayuga Nation members, who joined the Seneca reserves receive small checks each year, in the Cayuga's case, from the sale of their reservation in the Finger Lakes, which they say they were really cheated out of.

Every year when I was a child, around the fifth of June, we received money from the Onondaga Nation, which was issued to every person on the roll books, as part of some treaty agreement. I never knew, and to this day do not know, what the "June Money" represented, but even when I was 3, my mother gave me my share and reminded me it was something we were getting because we agreed to lose something else.

>How much was it?

It was usually somewhere between $2 and $6. This probably doesn't seem like a lot, but we were poor in that period.

My mother wanted us to understand that this money represented a relationship our nation had with the United States and that a collective memory relies upon individual memories as well as those of the group.

>How do you like teaching at Canisius?

I love it there.

>You must have quite a commute to Buffalo from Niagara Falls. Are you thinking about leaving Niagara County?

I'm not leaving. It's only a 17-minute commute for me.

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Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Louise Continelli, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or e-mail her at lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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