The Buffalo Maritime Center is using the construction of a replica Seneca Chief riverboat to tell the untold story of how this historic event impacted the Indigenous peoples of the region.
“The Haudenosaunee and the Erie Canal,” which opened earlier this month at the Longshed at Canalside, is one of three exhibits this month celebrating the history and culture of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (pronounced ho-DEE- no-sho-nee).
“Haudenosaunee Resurgence: Marie Watt, Calling Back, Calling Forward” opened Friday at the Buffalo History Museum, and “O’nigoei:yo:h Thinking in Indian” opened the day before at UB Art Galleries, which includes the Center for the Arts and Anderson Gallery.
“I hope people come away with a sense of the complexity of our communities and our significance in history,” said Joe Stahlman, a Seneca and director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca. “Buffalo didn’t really celebrate Haudenosaunee culture. It’s not front and center; you don’t see it as pride celebrations or ethnic celebrations.
People also read…
“Although Buffalo didn’t really pay attention to it, we did our own thing,” he said. “We continued to bloom.”
It’s a story Brian Trzeciak, general manager of the Buffalo Maritime Center, was eager to tell.
“Chief Seneca gives us the opportunity to tell a story that really hasn’t been told,” Trzeciak said. “I think if we want to have an authentic account of the real story that happened, we need to tell the whole story as much as possible.”
The Maritime Center is building a replica ocean liner for the Erie Canal Bicentennial Celebration in three years, commemorating Governor DeWitt Clinton’s ceremonial voyage from Buffalo to New York to open the Erie Canal in October 1825.
Text panels and videos located in the mezzanine of the Longshed highlight the history of the native peoples of western New York from 1776. Battles with American troops, fraudulent treaties and displacements are told, as well as the displacements that occurred during and after the construction of the canal.
The panels, written by Stahlman, include a quote from Clinton describing Indigenous people as “barbarians and wild beasts,” before the governor softened that view in later years.
Clinton “crafted a narrative of New York’s own manifest destiny in which the Haudenosaunee were seen as the inevitable tragic loss in the march of ‘progress,'” one of the panels read. “The name Chief Seneca probably corresponded to this attitude and serves as a stinging honor to those dismissed.”
“There’s been a lot of really great things that have happened with the Erie Canal, and obviously Buffalo is here because of that, and we should be increasing that, but we should also recognize the cost,” Trzeciak said.
The exhibit also celebrates Haudenosaunee pride and resilience.
“This is not a story of Haudenosaunee victimization and annihilation,” Trzeciak said. “It’s a story that despite all the obstacles along the way and all the broken promises, they persisted and are staying here.”
An art exhibit — by a Portland, Oregon-based artist with family ties to the Cattaraugus Reservation — is a departure for the Buffalo History Museum.
Anthony Greco, Director of Exhibitions, explained the initial challenge of exhibiting Watt’s work – “she’s an artist and we’re a history museum, so how does her art intertwine with our history?” – settled down.
It’s an unusual exhibit for other reasons as well, he said.
“This is the first step in hopefully many museum endeavors in co-curating with our indigenous peoples and collaborating with other communities that we have not worked with in the past,” said said Greco.
The museum repatriated in May 2021 the Silver Red Jacket Peace Medal which had been in its possession for over a century. The medal was awarded to Red Jacket by President George Washington.
The exhibit, which includes textiles, beads and sculptures, is from the Hunterdon Museum in Clinton, NJ. Included are the use of blankets, which Watt says are held in high regard in indigenous cultures, and other materials used to interact with story objects. museum collection, demonstrating connections to the Haudenosaunee.
“Ideally, my work shows a connection between things that are important to me now and things that are important to my ancestors, and which I hope will be important to future generations,” Watt said.
A large web of fabrics sewn together by members of a sewing circle features words and phrases from “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye.
“In the song, he calls ‘mother, mother, brother, brother.’ , grandpa, turtle, turtle and sky, sky,” Watt said. “It’s a way of remembering our ancestors and passing it on to future generations.”
Neon letters at the back of the museum, visible from the Scajaquada Highway, spell out “Nancy Bowen.” In 1930, 66-year-old Seneca killed Clothilde Marchand, the wife of Paris-trained artist Henri Marchand working at the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Lila Jimerson, a Seneca having an extramarital affair with Henri, allegedly convinced Bowen that the victim was a “white witch” responsible for the death of Bowen’s husband, Charley “Chief Sassafras” Bowen.
The trial, which included racist epithets used against Jimerson, was called the “trial of the century” and became a scandal of international proportions. Bowen pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served a year in the Erie County Jail.
The use of the lettering is intended to draw attention to Bowen’s treatment by the justice system and media coverage of the trial, Watt said.
The art exhibit at UB celebrates the 50th anniversary of the school’s Indigenous studies. Artwork by nearly 50 artists from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is on display – Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.
The exhibition includes an array of works made from paint, glass beads, digital data, black ash and moose hair.
“There’s an incredible convergence, and I’m so glad there’s finally this representation of the brilliance of our artists, visionaries and thinkers,” said Theresa McCarthy, interim chair and associate professor of the new department of Indigenous Studies from UB.
“What an amazing time this summer of 2022 is,” she said. “It’s so awesome.”
McCarthy, an Onondaga, said the school’s famous Native American studies program is part of the American Studies department and adds a lot to Haudenosaunee scholarship. After the program fell on hard times due to the deaths and retirements of key faculty, she said their fortunes changed in 2019 with a $3.2 million Mellon grant to launch a stand-alone department of research. native studies.
There are now eight Indigenous faculty and 287 Indigenous undergraduate and graduate students enrolled for the spring semester, McCarthy said.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, waterfront, culture and more. He is also a former arts editor for The News.