TUSCARORA NATION -- The Tuscarora History Group got its start several years ago as a casual book club.
Now the group is going public, holding an open house March 25 in the Tuscarora Nation House, with displays and speakers on many facets of Tuscarora life, from sports and culture to history and language.
The open house is a significant undertaking for a group that started years ago around the table in Yehsenaruhcreh Wendy Bissell's home.
"I was reading the book by David Cusick, and it was a difficult read, so I invited people over to have a book club, to sit at the table and just talk," Bissell said. The 1828 book by David Cusick, who lived between 1780 and 1840, is titled "Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations." The book is considered the first account of Haudenosaunee history and myth written by a Native American.
As the group read and discussed Cusick's book, their interest in history began to include the personal. They began to share stories that had been passed down in their own families, said Bissell. "It got to be very interesting, then it got bigger, so we moved it to the culture classroom in the school," she said.
In March 2013, members of the History Group were among three busloads of people who traveled to the Tuscaroras' onetime homeland of Snow Hill, N.C., from which their ancestors were driven out in 1713 by colonists and their Native American allies.
After a difficult trek north, the Tuscaroras were admitted to the Iroquois League in 1722 as the younger brothers of the Cayugas, joining the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida and Seneca peoples. Their detailed oral history says that they were rejoining the Nations to which they had once belonged.
This history of the Tuscarora migration will be included in the topics for the Tuscarora History Group presentation, called "Skarure Rez Life" from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25 at the Tuscarora Nation House, 5226 Walmore Road, at Mount Hope Road. The event is free and open to all.
The group plans displays with artifacts and documents on many topics, including the sports of lacrosse and snow snake, farming, beadwork, the Tuscarora language, the current reservation and the history of the Tuscarora princess contest. Some of the presenters will give talks on their chosen topics throughout the day.
Indian tacos -- made with taco fillings on a shell of fry bread -- will be sold.
"We are trying to showcase the things we do on the reservation, clear up the murky waters," said Bissell. "Some people think we still live in a tipi, things like that, and we're trying to show that we are a lot alike. We are trying to educate, too."
"We are encouraging people from the reservation, as well as other reservations, to attend," said Angela Jonathan, a member of the group. People with an interest in Native culture, language or sports are also welcome, she said.
Grant Jonathan, a well-known beadworker, is sending some of his vintage beadwork collection to be displayed. The Tuscarora made fancy beaded items for sale at Niagara Falls as early as the 1830s. Popular items included pincushions and picture frames.
One fascinating topic the group has explored is the presence of an Army camp on Mount Hope Road across from Green Road at least through the 1950s.
A paper titled "History of the Niagara – Buffalo Army Air Defense 1952 – 1970," written by Paul Robitaille, lists the Tuscarora Nation as the site of an anti-aircraft battery staffed by the 44th AAA (Gun) Battalion during the Cold War years, starting in the early 1950s. In 1955, the camp on Tuscarora was staffed by the 606th AAA (Gun) Battalion. Other antiaircraft sites were set up in Fort Niagara, Lewiston, Wheatfield, Niagara Falls and Grand Island.
On Feb. 15, 1953, Gun Battery “D,” commanded by Captain Loren O. Bishop, held an open house at the Mount Hope Road camp for 250 members of the Tuscarora Nation, according to Robitaille.
The history group is interested in documenting such influences through both research and personal memories.
The group hosted a guest speaker who was stationed at the camp while serving in the Army. "He said that three service members from the camp married Tuscaroras and stayed here," said Angela Jonathan. "He gave us the history and had pictures of the Army camp," which has been gone for years, she said.
The Tuscarora History Group has about a dozen active members who range in age from college years to elders, including Chief Leo Henry. "There are all different age groups, and all different interests," said Jonathan.
Their discussions are sometimes grounded in a topic, and other time range widely, Jonathan said. "Sometimes we just go down the roads and say, 'What do you remember about this road or that road?' 'What buildings are not there anymore?'"
"We have an awesome time in our history group," said Bissell. "We start off on a topic, and then someone will remember what their grandmother said or their grandfather said, then someone will tell a story they heard from their grandparents. We have a fun time and we usually do a lot of laughing."
Other local historical societies have been invited to the March 25 event, as well as people on and off the reservation alike, the members said.
"Even this is a historical moment, because we've never done this before," said Bissell. "We read our history in books, and we want to clarify things that have been said, we want to set the history straight. First we are gathering, then we will put it all together. We're gathering, you have to touch every base."
As for the name of the event -- "Skarure Rez Life" -- Bissell chuckled when she was asked to translate the first word. "Tell everyone to come to the event and find out," she said.