Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Who We Are: Native American Spirit Rises Above Stereotype by Diana Louise Carter
Classmates of 17-year-old Mike Schmitt have asked him why he doesn't sport a Mohawk hairstyle. He is, after all, a Mohawk.
Mike, a junior at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton, blends in with a million boys and men who wear their hair cut short all over but a little longer on top.
Usually G. Peter Jemison of Victor, Ontario County, wears the business casual uniform of polo shirt and khakis. But when he attended Gov. Eliot Spitzer's inauguration in January, he wore traditional Seneca attire, including a feathered headdress, as he was representing the Seneca Nation of Indians. A woman passing by raised her hand and said "How," mimicking the greeting Hollywood mistakenly attributed to all Native Americans more than half a century ago.
It seems that even in 2007, the image of Native Americans is shrouded in hoary stereotypes.
"There still is a misunderstanding about who Native Americans are, and it's often framed through political lenses," said Jemison, manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor. "I don't know if there is a group quite like us in terms of the level of stereotyping."
The Rochester area, once the exclusive homeland of the Seneca, today is home to nearly 8,000 people who claim some Native American heritage, with about 2,300 of them identifying primarily as Native American, according to 2000 census figures. They are students and state employees, like Schmitt and Jemison, but also frequently ironworkers, machinists, nurses, professors, professional athletes and artists.
Perhaps 80 percent are from one of the Iroquois nations that make up the indigenous people of upstate New York — Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora — while the rest come from some of the 500 other native nations across North America, including Navajo, Ojibwe, Cherokee and Lakota.
A diverse lot, they share celebrations of Native American heritage, while continually trying to educate others about who they really are.
Jobs drew people here
The first large migration from reservations to the Rochester area followed World War II. Jeanette Miller, director of the Friends of Ganondagan and Jemison's wife, was born here in the post-war era. Miller's father came from the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario. Her mother grew up on Akwesasne, the Mohawk reservation on the St. Lawrence River that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border near Massena.
"There wasn't much work on the reservations at the time," Miller explained. "Rochester was booming." Her father found a job as an ironworker, as did many Mohawk and Seneca men. Her mother, trained in the domestic arts at a convent-run school, first worked as a seamstress for Hickey-Freeman, the menswear manufacturer.
"When we got together with the other Indians in the community, it was more of a social event," Miller said. Feeling isolated, the families gathered to break bread — and drink — with people like themselves, says Miller.
"Our generation — there is no drinking. We don't do that," said Miller, referring to the alcoholism that has plagued the native community. Today's gatherings focus on recapturing cultural traditions nearly lost in the 20th century.
Twice a month a small group meets at Ganondagan to speak Mohawk. Participants start by reciting the Thanksgiving Address, a prayer that begins and ends most Iroquois gatherings. Tom George, 66, of Farmington, Ontario County, offers suggestions or corrections when others struggle for the right word as they count and play bingo in Mohawk.
"It's my culture, and I've always spoken that way," George said. A retired ironworker, he used to speak in Mohawk with fellow ironworkers or when he talked with his parents over the phone. "I would like to see a lot of people speak it."
For generations, native children were punished for speaking American Indian languages in state or federally sanctioned boarding schools designed to forcibly assimilate them into the mainstream culture.
"We were converted, told that our language was bad," said Sid Hill, the chief of chiefs, or Tadodaho, of the Iroquois Confederacy, who lives on the Onondaga reservation south of Syracuse.
"You're supposed to have religious freedom in America," Hill said, but for decades, Native American religious practices were suppressed or outlawed. Today many Iroquois who were brought up as Christians are trying to return to their ancestral religion.
Hill said even those who cling faithfully to the Native American traditions find themselves walking in two worlds.
Among Longhouse followers, a 10-day mourning period is practiced after a death. On the last day, the community's leaders and the family decide where the deceased's possessions go, he said. That practice can bring them into conflict with probate laws.
"It's always a conflict of trying to do both ways," he said.
Miller's mother and the mother of Martha Fahrer, a Cattaraugus Seneca who heads the Native American Cultural Center on East Main Street, were original members of Ojisto, a social club for Indian women formed in the 1940s.
Fahrer said that club and others sought the grants that started the cultural center 35 years ago. At first both a social hub and social services center, the center's role has changed as federal grant programs for Native Americans have dried up.
Now the agency administers solely a job-training program for Native Americans.
Migration from reservations, Fahrer said, dropped off in the 1980s as Rochester's building boom came to halt.
Holding onto heritage
In the same decade, Ganondagan State Historic Site opened. It has become not only a historic and hiking attraction but also a place to learn about Native American culture.
This May, the site will host its second historic re-enactment of fur trade events that took place there when the Ontario County hilltop was home to thousands of Senecas in the 17th century.
The site's staff and the Friends of Ganondagan have lined up $9.4 million in donations toward a $13 million, 30,000-square-foot arts and education center they hope to build within three years.
In Rochester, where the nearest Indian reservation is 50 miles away and the nearest Indian-run schools are even farther, cultural learning nevertheless begins early for Native Americans.
Rochester schools offer an extended day program at School 19 on Seward Street for students of Native American heritage. Currently about 250 are eligible but about 40 attend.
"What they're learning here will teach them who they are," said Perry Ground, director of the cultural resource center.
Many students come from low-income families, are biracial or triracial and start out with little knowledge of or pride in their native heritage, said Ground, who is a professional storyteller on the side.
"I found a way to use my culture to support myself and teach others about Native Americans," he said, adding that he hopes his example and the lessons the students learn there will inspire them.
In 2006, St. John Fisher College hired literature scholar Scott Lyons, who is Ojibwe, not only to teach courses in Native American literature but also to start the area's first Native American studies program at the college level.
Until now, students have had to go to Syracuse University, the State University of New York at Buffalo or Cornell University in Ithaca to pursue native studies in depth.
Also last year, a group of teenagers formed the local chapter of United National Indian Tribal Youth. They meet twice a month, once for business and once to socialize with others of similar heritage.
"We're all getting good grades, being active members of the community. Part of this is prepping for college," said the group's president, Dalton LaBarge, 16, a junior at Wilson Magnet High School.
"We want to bring the native community out of the background."
But like older organizations, one purpose of the group is to build camaraderie among people who feel isolated and marginalized by the mainstream culture.
Before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s, the Iroquois "flourished as a people," said Tadodaho Sid Hill. "We had a government, ceremonies, a way to conduct ourselves." And those ways even influenced the people who came later.
The Iroquois style of governance is said to have inspired the American founding fathers' federation style of democracy, as Ben Franklin commented on it in his writings. The power that Iroquois women hold in their society helped inspire the 19th-century women's rights movement that grew out of central New York. Iroquois people — who call themselves Haudenosaunee — say the creator gave them the game of lacrosse that they've shared with the world, although the Cherokees might argue about who got that gift first.
"All our teachings tell us we're part of the land. We're part of the environment. Everything we do is in (accordance) with the seasons," Hill said.
The land is so much a part of Iroquois identity that the Seneca word for Seneca, Onöndowahgha, means "people of the Great Hill," referring to a hill at the southern end of Canandaigua Lake, the original home of the Senecas.
Land remains a critical issue for New York's Native Americans as most Iroquois nations continue to press legal suits to reclaim their aboriginal lands, lost in questionable treaties in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Native Americans are still here and still following their traditions, Hill said.
"We've been here for thousands of years. How we are today — yes, we've assimilated. But we still feel we have certain rights as indigenous people."
This article appears in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Click here to send feedback to the author.
Diana Louise Carter
Tuesday, April 3, 2007