The Buffalo Maritime Center is using construction of a replica of the Seneca Chief canal boat to tell the overlooked story of how that historic event impacted the region’s Indigenous people.
“The Haudenosaunee and the Erie Canal,” which opened earlier this month at the Longshed at Canalside, is one of three exhibitions this month celebrating the history and culture of the Haudenosaunee (pronounced ho-DEE-no-sho-nee) Confederacy.
“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 walk away with a sense of complexity of our communities, and our reach into history,” said Joe Stahlman, a Seneca and director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca. “Buffalo hasn’t really celebrated Haudenosaunee culture very much. It’s not at the forefront; you don’t see it like pride celebrations or ethnic celebrations.
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“While Buffalo didn’t really pay attention, we’ve been doing our own thing,” he said. “We have continued to flower.”
It’s a story Brian Trzeciak, Buffalo Maritime Center’s executive director, was anxious to tell.
“The Seneca Chief provides an opportunity for us to tell a story that has really not been told,” Trzeciak said. “I think if we’re going to have a genuine narrative about the actual history that happened, we need to tell the entire history as much as we can.”
The maritime center is building a replica of the packet boat for the Erie Canal Bicentennial celebration in three years, commemorating Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s ceremonial trip from Buffalo to New York City to open the Erie Canal in October 1825.
Text panels and videos located in the Longshed’s mezzanine highlight the history of Native peoples in Western New York beginning in 1776. Battles with U.S. troops, duplicitous treaties and displacement are recounted, along with relocations that occurred during and after the canal’s construction.
The panels, written by Stahlman, include a quote from Clinton describing Indigenous people as “barbarians and savage 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 reads. “The name Seneca Chief probably fell in line with this attitude, and serves as a stinging honor towards the people pushed aside.”
“There was a lot of really great things that happened with the Erie Canal, and obviously Buffalo is here because of that, and we should lift that up, but we should also acknowledge the cost,” Trzeciak said.
The exhibit also celebrates Haudenosaunee pride and resiliency.
“This isn’t a story of victimhood and the Haudenosaunee being annihilated,” Trzeciak said. “This is a story that, despite all of the obstacles along the way and all the broken promises, they persisted and remain here.”
An art exhibition – by a Portland, Ore.-based artist with familial ties to the Cattaraugus Reservation – is a departure for the Buffalo History Museum.
Anthony Greco, director of exhibits, said the initial challenge in displaying Watt’s work – “she’s an artist and we’re a history museum, so how does her art blend with our history?” – worked itself out.
It is an unusual exhibition for other reasons, too, he said.
“This is the first step of hopefully many that the museum takes regarding co-curation with our Indigenous populations, and working with other communities we haven’t worked with in the past,” Greco said.
The museum repatriated the silver Red Jacket Peace Medal in May 2021 that was in its possession for more than a century. The medal was awarded to Red Jacket by President George Washington.
The exhibit, which includes textiles, beadworks and sculpture, came from the Hunterdon Museum in Clinton, N.J. Included are the use of blankets, which Watt said are held in high regard in Indigenous cultures, and other materials used to engage with objects from the history museum’s collection, demonstrating linkages with 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 that I hope will be important to future generations,” Watt said.
One large canvas of cloths stitched together by members of a sewing circle features words and phrases from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
“In the song he calls out ‘mother, mother, brother, brother.’ I was thinking that in our tradition the call would continue as auntie, auntie, uncle, uncle, grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, grandfather, turtle, turtle and sky, sky,” Watt said. “It’s a way to call back to our ancestors and forward to future generations.”
Neon letters on the back of the museum, visible from the Scajaquada Expressway, spell out “Nancy Bowen.” The 66-year-old Seneca in 1930 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, was said to have 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 a “trial of the century” and became a scandal of international proportions. Bowen pled guilty to manslaughter and served one year in Erie County jail.
The use of the lettering is intended to draw attention to the justice system’s treatment of Bowen and the media’s coverage of the trial, Watt said.
The art exhibition at UB is celebrating the 50th year of the school’s Indigenous Studies. On display are artwork from nearly 50 artists of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy – 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 is an incredible convergence, and I am so happy that there is finally this representation of the brilliance of our artists and visionaries and thinkers,” said Theresa McCarthy, the interim chair and associate professor of UB’s new Indigenous Studies department.
“What an incredible moment this summer of 2022 is,” she said. “It’s just so awesome.”
McCarthy, an Onondaga, said the school’s renowned Native American Studies program was part of the American Studies department and added a lot to the scholarship of the Haudenosaunee. After the program fell on hard times due to 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 Indigenous Studies department.
There are now eight Indigenous faculty members and 287 Native undergraduate and graduate students registered for the spring semester, McCarthy said.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He’s also a former arts editor at The News.