The Buffalo Maritime Center is using the construction of a replica of the Seneca Chief canal boat to tell the overlooked story of how this historic event impacted the area’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 at the Buffalo History Museum Friday, and O’nigoei:yo:h Thinking in Indian opened the day before at the UB Art Galleries, which also includes the Center for the Arts and Anderson Gallery.
“I hope people walk away with a sense of the complexity of our communities and our reach into history,” said Joe Stahlman, a Seneca and director of the National Seneca-Iroquois Museum in Salamanca. “Buffalo didn’t really celebrate Haudenosaunee culture. She’s not on the front line; it is not seen as a pride celebration or an ethnic celebration.
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“While Buffalo wasn’t really paying attention, we did our own thing,” he said. “We continued to flourish.”
It’s a story Brian Trzeciak, executive director of the Buffalo Maritime Center, was dying to tell.
“The Seneca chief offers us an opportunity to tell a story that has really never been told,” Trzeciak said. “I think if we’re going to have a real narrative of the actual story that happened, we need to tell the whole story as much as we can.”
The maritime center is building a replica of the packet boat for the Erie Canal Bicentennial celebration three years from now, to commemorate Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s ceremonial trip from Buffalo to New York City for the opening of the Erie Canal in October 1825.
Plaques and videos on the mezzanine level of the Longshed shed light on the history of Native Americans in western New York from 1776. Battles with US troops, dual treaties, and displacement are told, along with resettlement that took place during and after the canal’s construction.
The panels, authored by Stahlman, include a quote from Clinton describing Native Americans as “barbarians and savage beasts,” before the governor softened that view in later years.
Clinton “created a narrative of New York’s own Manifest Destiny, in which the Haudenosaunee were viewed as the inevitable tragic loss on the march of ‘progress,'” reads one of the panels. “The name Seneca Chief probably fitted that attitude and serves as a stinging honor to the people pushed aside.”
“There’s been a lot of really great things that have happened with the Erie Canal and obviously that’s why Buffalo is here and we should annul that, but we should also recognize the cost,” Trzeciak said.
The exhibit also celebrates Haudenosaunee pride and resilience.
“This is not a story about Haudenosaunee sacrifice and destruction,” Trzeciak said. “This is a story that despite all the obstacles along the way and all the broken promises, they persevered and are here to stay.”
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, said the initial challenge of showing Watts’ work – “she’s an artist and we’re a history museum, so how does her art fit into our history?” – has passed.
It is also an unusual exhibition for other reasons, he said.
“This is the first of hopefully many steps the museum is taking in terms of co-curating with our indigenous peoples and working with other communities that we have not worked with in the past,” said Greco.
In May 2021, the museum returned the silver Red Jacket Peace Medal that had been in its possession for more than a century. The medal was presented to Red Jacket by President George Washington.
The exhibit, which includes textiles, beadwork and sculpture, is from the Hunterdon Museum in Clinton, NJ. Included are the use of blankets, which Watt says are highly valued in indigenous cultures, and other materials used to engage objects from the museum’s history collection that reveal 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 canvas of fabric sewn together by members of a sewing circle contains words and phrases from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
“In the song, he calls out ‘mother, mother, brother, brother.’ I thought that in our tradition, the reputation as aunt, aunt, uncle, uncle, grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, grandfather, tortoise, tortoise and heaven, heaven would continue,” Watt said. “It’s a way to call back to our ancestors and pass it on to future generations.”
Neon letters at the back of the museum, visible from the Scajaquada Expressway, spell out “Nancy Bowen.” In 1930, 66-year-old Seneca killed Clothilde Marchand, wife of Paris-educated artist Henri Marchand who worked at the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Lila Jimerson, a Seneca who had an extramarital affair with Henri, is 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 contained racist slurs against Jimerson, was dubbed 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 the treatment of Bowen by the justice system and media coverage of the trial, Watt said.
The art exhibition at the UB celebrates the 50th anniversary of the school’s Indigenous Studies. On display are artworks by nearly 50 artists from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora.
The exhibition includes a series of works in paint, glass beads, digital data, black ash and elk hair.
“There is an incredible convergence, and I am so happy that there is finally this display of the brilliance of our artists, visionaries and thinkers,” said Theresa McCarthy, interim chair and associate professor of UB’s new Department of Indigenous Studies.
“What an incredible moment this summer of 2022 is,” she said. “It’s just so great.”
McCarthy, an Onondaga, said the school’s renowned Native American Studies program is part of the American Studies department and has contributed much to the Haudenosaunee’s scholarship. After the program fell on hard times with deaths and the retirement of key faculty, she said her fortunes changed in 2019 with a $3.2 million Mellon grant to establish a standalone department for indigenous people establish studies.
There are now eight Indigenous faculty members and 287 Indigenous undergraduate and graduate students enrolled for the spring semester, McCarthy said.
Mark Sommer covers conservation, development, waterfront, culture and more. He is also a former art editor at The News.