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TUSCARORA TEENS TALK TRADITION

On Thanksgiving Day, Rose Hill and Emily Henry, both 15, and Christopher Mount Pleasant, 14, all members of the Tuscarora Bear Clan, will partake in a wonderful feast.

When the three Niagara Wheatfield High School students were asked what they'd be doing on Thanksgiving, the answer boiled down to one thing - eating with relatives around a crowded table.

"We'll eat," said Chris, "and then watch some videos from Blockbuster. The next day we'll eat some more, leftovers."

The menu?

Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce.

"All good stuff," said Rose, who will be at her aunt's house, along with nearly two dozen relatives.

There could be one variation, adding a Native American touch.

"Sometimes," said Emily. "We have corn bread at my grandma's house."

That the elder bakes?

"Well, she might - or she might buy it," said Emily.

So, in this celebration, at least, these teens, whose heritage is mainly Tuscarora, are as American as apple pie.

There are some differences, however, in the way they celebrate other holidays, the games they play, the food they eat, the language they have studied.

Rose, for one is trying to learn the language of her people, called skarure, through classes she takes on Monday and Thursday evenings. The language was not always written down and, in fact, only recently was compiled into a dictionary.

"I have a dictionary," she said, "but it's only about an inch and a half thick."

Though they live on the reservation, they don't feel as if they are in two worlds, they say.

From pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, they attended the Tuscarora Indian School, where their culture, language and customs were reinforced. Every school week began and ended with the Thanksgiving Address - which they describe as a "long prayer" - to express thanks for the land, the people, the animals, the trees.

From their families and in school, which has about 130 students, they learned about the Bear Clan, one of nine clans of the Tuscarora. With only slight hesitation they come up with all of them: air (hawk, snipe, heron); land (bear, wolf, deer) and water (beaver, eel, turtle).

And Chris explains that the Tuscarora are called "People of the Shirt" for the ribbon shirts they wear and that the men wear a head dress, called gustoweh, which has a different arrangement of feathers to distinguish one nation from another.

It was so that she would learn such traditions that Rose's family returned to Western New York, she said. "We lived in New Mexico for a couple of years, but wecame back so I could go to school here," she said.

Moving to middle school was a relatively smooth transition, they say, though they've encountered a few ethnic slurs.

"We'll be trying to joke around and someone will say "what are you - some kind of warrior?'" said Rose.

"Some people think Native Americans are savages," said Chris.

They agree that the characterization comes from the media.

"I think it's from what they see on TV or in the movies," Rose said. They could come up with only a handful of movies ("Smoke Signals," "Wind Talkers" and "The Last of the Mohicans") that they said gave acceptable portrayals.

The youngsters are excited and proud about the North American Indigenous Games, a kind of Olympic competition, which were held in Winnipeg this summer and where their schoolmate Jenna Gansworth competed in softball. Buffalo has made a bid to host the games in 2005, an event that is expected to draw at least 7,000 athletes, plus family and friends.

As adults they expect to remain on the reservation, which numbers about 1,200 people, though they'll have to venture farther afield when looking for marriage partners "because everybody here is your cousin."

"Sometimes I want to stay on the rez," said Rose. "Other times I want to move away. Most of the relatives on my mother's side are here."

"I'll probably live over yonder because that's where everyone is," said Emily, gesturing toward the reservation. "It would be weird not to be there."

It's where they participate in the annual Tuscarora Nation picnic and field days, where there is smoke dancing, the powwow drum and lacrosse. It's a place to buy fry bread, Indian tacos, Buffalo burgers, Black Cap pie (blackberry), along with corn bread and corn soup.

Not on the menu is Chris' version, the one he calls "white man's" soup, which is made with cans of corn, beans and chunks of Spam.

Emily said she's game for learning traditions and understands that it's up to her generation to keep them going.

"Everyone is getting old," said Emily. "They'll be dying."

She draws the line, however, at eating rabbit.

"I won't eat the bunny pie," she said, making a face.

Chris has already participated in a ceremony he called a "feast" several times.

"It can last up to six days," he said. "It happens when someone dies in the family. We have a sweat lodge, which is a dome made of wood and cloth. You carry in hot rocks called "grandfathers' with a pitchfork.

"Then you go with a towel and a pair of shorts. Up to 20 people go into the lodge and the ceremony starts with the singing of a song, in rounds. Each round can take 10 minutes.

"The only thing you see is the rocks glowing and it gets quite hot," Chris said. "Then you sit and sweat. If it gets too hot, you can put your head down or you can say "all my relatives' and then you can go out.

"It's like a medicine. You feel better, but sometimes you get a little light-headed. You might stay in about an hour and a half. If you are lucky you see the spirits."

When asked if she'd ever participated, Emily shook her head: "I don't like hot."

One celebration that they all take part in is Nu-Ya - on New Year's.

"It's almost like Halloween," said Chris. "On the first day of the year, you go out very, very early in the morning and go into house and yell Nu-Ya to wake people up. Then you get pastries and doughnuts and cookies.

"It's a good way to start the year," he said. "All hyped up."

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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