“This is a dream come true! We’ve already seen what it can do,” Ganondagan State Historic Site Manager G. Peter Jemison (Heron Clan/Seneca) said of the center during his Thanksgiving Address on the day of the opening. What it can do is bring people together, as evidenced by that day. Those gathered around were from a number of nations, as well as members from the local Victor, New York community.
Those attendees stood on what was once a large 17th-century Seneca town, with up to 150 longhouses and 4,500 residents. Over the last 30 years, the work to preserve the site has been tremendous.
“You’re on a historic site, you’re on a site that was a major Seneca town, so this is where people actually lived and carried out their lives,” Jemison explained. “In the beginning it was just an abandoned farm,” he said of when the preservation process began. The first step was interpretive signage, then came a documentary telling the story about the site called “House of Peace,” then came the Friends of Ganondagan organization, which as a nonprofit could accept donations. The Bark Longhouse was dedicated on the site in 1998. Then the idea came to have a building that would have exhibits and classrooms. That idea has become a reality, and it opened to the public on October 24 with storytelling, exhibit tours, basketmaking demonstrations, Iroquois social dancing, and a showing of the Iroquois Creation Story.
The 17,300 square-foot Seneca Art & Culture Center includes nearly 3,000 feet of interactive gallery space, which features the permanent story of Ganondagan; a multi-purpose auditorium with roll-out theater seating and a sprung floor so it “feels good on dancers’ feet,” Jemison quipped; two classrooms and an orientation theater; a catering kitchen; gardens; a gift shop; and offices.
The $15 million project was not a sole venture. The project was completed with help from the Friends of Ganondagan Board of Trustees Building Committee, the Rock Foundation, New York State, the Seneca Nation, the Thaw Charitable Trust, Ongweoweh Corporation, the Tonawanda Senecas, the Haudenosaunee, as well as additional corporate and private donations. “All of these partners, they found a way to work together,” Jemison told ICTMN.
To show that cooperation, a wampum belt was created. Michael Galban, Washoe/Paiute, curator and content expert for Ganondagan, explained to those assembled in the auditorium on opening day how wampum belts contain meaning and power. This belt is an emblem of cooperation with corn on either side and a line of independence and sovereignty flowing back and forth. The corn is representative of the corn that was grown by the Seneca who originally lived on this site, but it was destroyed in 1687 when Marquis de Denonville led an expedition from Canada to Ganondagan to destroy the Seneca, who were competitors in the international fur trade.
During the opening festivities, Galban told groups touring the gallery historical facts, including details about the Denonville Raid of 1687. Denonville forced Mohawks to join him by threatening the men and their families. “He said if you don’t come we’re going to put you in jail and it could be worse on your families, we could put your whole families in jail, so the Mohawk men had to go with him,” Galban told the group.
The Senecas insulted Denonville and his Native “allies” from the hills as they approached. But that night, the Mohawk men slipped away and met their Seneca brothers. They told them about Denonville’s army, how many men he had, the order of march, and that the Mohawks would all be wearing red wool headbands as field identification.
“The next day, the Senecas, when they ambush the army, they’re wearing red headbands,” Galban explained as he showed the gathered group a life size image of a Seneca man with tattoos and a pipe.
Galban explained how trading was carefully recorded in the early 1700s, so this man’s tattoos, his pipe, and ear piercings, were recorded when he traded. “Senecas had to defend their town, and he may have been in Denonville, and later was reported in that ledger, so those are true Seneca tattoos from that area,” Galban said.
That story, and many more are told in the gallery space. It features the story of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, and how to compete nationally the team needed to create a flag and an anthem. “These are the matters that needed to be settled to be at par in international play,” Galban explained.
While the center has a number of amenities, it’s about so much more than that. “It’s about the past, it’s about the reality of the life at the time, but we really emphasize the continuity of Seneca culture… and really we want people to recognize that Seneca people are a vital and present culture today,” Galban told ICTMN.
Being sure he gets it right is something that is important to him because he has three children, who are Mohawk, like his wife. “If I don’t get it right, then I’m doing them a disservice.”
Galban also noted the importance of teaching, and preserving the site to do so. He said Ganondagan is a place where people come, can recognize the importance of the site, and preserving it allows future generations to always have a place to go and be educated about Seneca people, culture, lifestyle, and history. “This [Seneca Art and Culture Center] creates a permanency and an ability to reach more people,” Galban said.
Jemison summed it up, by saying: “So what is it about? What is it for? It is to establish that we’re still here in the present, that we’re not past tense. Our story is a living story, it’s a story that is still being told—it’s still evolving. We have been through really difficult times, we have survived those difficult times—attacks on our towns, attacks on our language and our way of life, and we had to come back from all of that. We, the Seneca people, the Onondowa’ga’—People of the Great Hill. I think that that is something that is worth telling.”