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FIRST IN LINE
FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS BEFORE THE HISTORY BOOKS BEGIN, NATIVE PEOPLE LIVED THE GOOD LIFE IN WHAT IS NOW WESTERN NEW YORK. THEIR PRESENCE, AND THEIR INFLUENCE, ARE STILL AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE WAY WE LIVE.

The view across a wide bend of the Allegheny River just east of this Southern Tier city doesn't differ markedly from the vista of 999 A.D.

Today, across the river from the old Zawatski farm, you glimpse the new Southern Tier Expressway; you hear the drone of diesel rigs speeding across it, and you trip across the inevitable mess of beer cans littering the shore.

But this spot is largely unchanged from when the first Americans ground corn on the broad slabs of rock lining the riverbed. The grinding indentations are still visible on the stones, moved a few years ago to the Seneca Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca.

A sense of history pervades this place, a realization that while the turn of the millennium marks a milestone in our European-based culture, a way of life existed in Western New York long before Christopher Columbus or George Washington or anybody else we revere in statue form. It's a place that forces us to study and appreciate the land on which we live, and the people who occupied it so long ago.

"There have been people in Western New York ever since the glaciers left -- 7,000 to 10,000 years ago," said Robert Dean, a Seneca archaeologist who lives in Steamburg, Cattaraugus County. "And those grinding stones? They could be 1,000 years old."

And there's a flip side to all this -- the very real presence of Indian cultures among us today.

"Most people think the Indians have died off, or that those left live west of the Mississippi River," said Michelle Dean-Stock, director of the Seneca Iroquois National Museum. "But we're still here."

From all available knowledge, Indian people dwelt all over Western New York, especially on the Genesee and Allegheny rivers, Chautauqua Lake, the Finger Lakes and along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario. Wherever substantial bodies of water provided drinking water and transportation routes, Native Americans settled.

And it was not always the Iroquois -- the Senecas, Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas and Tuscaroras still among us. There were Eries and Hurons and a people known as the Neutrals who lived on the grounds we walk today -- only to vanish into history.

No one really knows how many there were, because nobody counted. But when the Dutch and English first ventured west from New York and Albany in 1677, they noted 150 longhouses at the Seneca village called Ganondagan -- now a state historic site near Victor in southeastern Monroe County. Peter Jemison, the Seneca historian who directs the site, said 4,500 people could have dwelt there during that first informal census.

"We know that in 1677 the Senecas could put 1,000 warriors in the field," he said. "But we also know that disease could at any time wipe out half the population. So maybe at one time there were 9,000 or 18,000 or 36,000. These are questions nobody can really answer."

Jemison also senses history in the rolling hills of Ganondagan, a typical Seneca settlement. Across a wide valley, he identifies the hilltop where a stockade protected women and children during attack.

He points to fields where his ancestors successfully cultivated the "three sisters" -- corn, beans and squash. These staples of Seneca life provided not only sustenance for the long, cold winter, but a kind of security that allowed time for crafts, arts and culture.

So despite the New York winter, despite disease and conflict, life was good.

"You have to picture an environment that was still quite pristine and people using only what they needed," Jemison said. "The woods were abundant with game, the streams abundant with fish. This place was a Garden of Eden."

Dean, the Seneca archaeologist, says life changed considerably only with the first European contact and the introduction of metal tools. Guns replaced bows and arrows; metal pots supplanted pottery. It was a huge development.

"That changed everything. It made things easier," he said.

Our predecessors on this land lived in a highly developed culture with a way of life based on respecting nature and each other, handed down by the Peacemaker -- a Christ-like figure who walked among New York State's Indians and united them into the Iroquois Confederacy. As a result, a political union among people in the current New York existed as early as the 1200s.

That meant communication and laws and trading patterns consistent with advanced societies. It made the current Route 5 from Albany to Buffalo into a trail so well-worn, experts say, you could drive a truck across it.

Each Iroquois nation maintained close ties and relationships, with each revolving around the longhouse and matriarchal families, as well as laws and customs governing every aspect of life.

"Our matrilineal society developed because women had the gift of giving birth," said Ms. Dean-Stock, the Seneca museum director. "Once men and women married, the man moved into the woman's house. That's the very opposite of the Western European tradition, and it remains that way today."

One of the foundations of their culture -- one reason why they not only survived but flourished -- was Iroquois respect for nature. Ms. Dean-Stock explains that native people viewed living things as a gift, and that philosophy was passed from generation to generation.

Corncobs became storage bowls; husks were fashioned into shoes, mats, mattresses and masks. The leg bones of slaughtered deer scraped hides, hooves became noisemakers in traditional dances, antlers were whittled into various tools, and small bones became needles and awls.

"Everything had a purpose," she said. "In fact, there is no word in the Iroquois language for garbage. That was according to the Creator's instructions -- when you take the life of something in creation, you have to give thanks and use it to the fullest extent."

And the Iroquois of upstate New York survived when other Indian cultures didn't. One reason was their strong commitment to preserving a culture through stories passed from generation to generation.

"There was a period of time when it started to falter, after Kinzua," Ms. Dean-Stock said, referring to the 1960s construction of the Kinzua Dam that wiped out much of the Allegany Reservation and produced a fair amount of social upheaval.

"When I was a kid, there were still people who were ashamed to be Indian," she added. "Now a lot of people come back and want to learn what they lost, or in some cases were forced to lose."

The Iroquois also survived because they never accepted the American ideal of the "melting pot," she added. A distinct society endured despite upheavals like Kinzua, or even a technology-based society imposed by European descendants.

Jemison, the Ganondagan historic site director, cites deeper reasons. The Great Law handed down by the Peacemaker stressed peace in a confederacy, preserving a way of life.

"Where are the rest of them on the East Coast?" he asked, referring to dozens of extinct nations. "We didn't always resort to conflict, because the message of peace was there.

"That's how we existed alongside the Europeans, because we knew how to negotiate and resolve differences," he added. "It allowed us to survive."

Indeed, Jemison maintains that Iroquois culture not only survived, but flourished enough to influence modern America. America's framers such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson recognized the strength of confederacy and incorporated those ideas into early writings.

The suffragists of a century ago turned to the Iroquois model for women because of the productive role they played in their society -- not as chattel or property.

"There was an interchange of ideas taking place that was powerful and real," Jemison said, "and it had an impact on the government we have today."

Jemison laments that this viewpoint is rarely understood. He says our culture remains ignorant of Native American contributions because schools put the emphasis on Europe. Few comprehend his contention of Iroquois influence on modern government, or that their respect for women helped revolutionize our own values.

Few also understand current controversies such as Iroquois claims on vast tracts of New York State land, because few harbor any concept of history, Dean adds. So the continuing saga of taking Indian land remains, from Kinzua Dam in the 1960s to the Southern Tier Expressway in the 1980s.

"From the Seneca viewpoint, Kinzua was a continuation of the way our people have always been treated -- removal from lands that were ours entirely," he said. "I tend to think that everyone identifies with the place where they belong, and certainly with the Iroquois, maybe those feelings are stronger than anyone's."

That's one reason Jemison now oversees the resurgence of Seneca culture in the hills of Victor, committed to telling the story at the only Indian historic site maintained by New York State. He hopes programs at Ganondagan will broaden understanding, because few appreciate that Indians were the land's stewards for centuries before Europeans arrived.

"We're trying to make a dent in a monolithic society that tells the story in only one way -- the European perspective," Jemison said. "That's why history and education are important, and that's our function here at Ganondagan. It's an awesome responsibility."