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Preserving New York’s Seneca heritage

Statue by Peter B. Jones at the Ganondagan Heritage Center. Construction crane for new arts and cultural centre in the background Statue by Peter B. Jones at the Ganondagan Heritage Center. Construction crane for new arts and cultural centre in the background Tom Hart
12 Jan
2015
  In Upstate New York a heritage centre is preserving a region’s natural, cultural and agricultural history

‘I tried sleeping out here the other night. I piled up furs as high as possible. I still didn’t sleep too well,’ says Peter Jemison, site manager at Ganondagan State Historic Site.  

Jemison stands in a bark longhouse that recreates the original living conditions for the Seneca people. Inside it’s not unlike a barracks. Two-level bunks run along the building’s length with the top level used for storage. Several families from the same clan would live in a longhouse, Jemison says.

The Seneca, an indigenous American people who belonged to the Iroquois League, are spread out across Canada, New York and Oklahoma. Although time and politics have scattered the Seneca, around 30,000 still live in their traditional New York home, mostly in the Upstate region.

Ganondagan State Historic Site recreates Seneca life 300 years ago. The bark longhouse and hiking trails around the site are used to educate visitors about Seneca life. An arts and cultural centre is also under construction and is set for completion this summer.

Although time and politics have scattered the Seneca, around 30,000 still live in their traditional New York home

The site was once home to a large Seneca settlement, but Louis XIV – eager for booty to construct Versailles – declared war on the Seneca. In 1697, the Marquis de Denonville razed the settlement.

‘They came here to wipe us out,’ says Jemison. ‘At the time there were only women, children and young adolescents. The French had lured the warriors into an engagement north from the main Seneca encampments.’

Seneca youngsters drew off the French soldiers, and saved the community from catastrophe. ‘The teenagers knew the territory better than the French soldiers. These were battle hardened veterans, but with a lot of kit they couldn’t chase the kids,’ explains Jemison. ‘The French landed 400 soldiers from the Great Lakes to establish a fort to control the region. Their mistake, was to leave them there over the winter.’ The small French garrison did not last long.

Wars with the French changed more than just the political balance in the region. Iroquois white corn, a staple for the Seneca tribe for at least 2,000 years, suffered during the turmoil. Around 500,000 bushels were burnt during the conflict.

For the past 20 years the Ganondagan Centre has been growing white corn, using a strain that is exactly the same as the one originally growing in the area during the 17th century

Only a few farms in the region now grow Iroquois white corn, according to Jemison. For the past 20 years the Ganondagan Centre has been growing white corn, using a strain that is exactly the same as the one originally growing in the area during the 17th century.

‘Food is our medicine,’ says Jemison. ‘If we cook healthier food, ultimately we’re going to be healthy.’ A key motivation for reintroducing white corn is to provide food with a lower glycaemic index for indigenous communities, as well as creating a market for local farmers.

Ganondagan is also a site where monarch butterflies lay eggs. Monarch butterflies prefer milkweed, but pale swallow-wort, an invasive species from the Ukraine, has smothered the local monarch-supporting milkweed. Swallow-wort is a milkweed species, which means the monarchs mistakenly lay eggs on it. But swallow-wort is poisonous for the monarch caterpillars.

Ganondagan is working to keep the swallow-wort under control with a planned removal programme. Care is required because incorrect removal can easily spread swallow-wort seeds. Once the swallow-wort is removed, ground fill from the new arts and culture centre will be used to create the soil base for a new monarch-friendly milkweed.

As Ganondagan’s projects move towards completion, the heritage centre is on course to preserve the region’s cultural, agricultural and natural history.

For more information on Ganondagan visit Responsible Travel's guide to New York state.

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