Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Handling Conflicts of Interest, Canadian Style
Next story: Carl Kowalkowski's Endgame

Iroquoia and the American Imagination

Smokin’ Joe’s Trading Post sells gas, tax-free cigarettes, some groceries, and also the kind of clothing motorcyclists like, including boots, leather jackets, and sweatshirts with various Native American themes and messages. Especially popular are the shirts with representations of the famous wampum belts that solemnized 17th- and 18th-century covenants between the Iroquois and the British Empire and its various colonies.

Tuscarora: A History

by Anthony F. C. Wallace

SUNY Press 2012

Joe Anderson, the Tuscarora who owns the complex, made space in it for an art museum that one gets to by walking through the diner. The Native American Museum of Art is a calm and orderly place within a retail environment that is more truck stop than suburban mall. Enlargements of ancient maps are interspersed with the art on display, principally contemporary graphic art, paintings, and stone and bone carvings on mythic themes by artists who are famous in Iroquoia—Joseph Jacobs, Simon Brascoupe, Karen Hodge Russell—and to some extent beyond that region that encompasses eastern Ontario, Upstate New York, and the parts of Quebec upriver from Quebec City. It is a small art gallery, hushed and carefully lit, sparse, elegant.

Percy Abrams’s office in the gallery’s far corner is of a piece: compact, tidy, and focused. At eye-level, his bookshelves have the catalogues of auction houses, and some specialty art magazines next to some histories of Native Americans and to some of the paperback republications of classic Bureau of American Ethnology reports from the early 20th century. Conversation with him is interrupted as he takes calls from art collectors and art dealers seeking his advice on whether to invest in this or that sculpture or print. What we were talking about was language, mostly. The central focus of Abrams’s professional life is revealed on the lower shelves: Floyd Lounsbury’s volumes on Oneida verbs and Iroquois place-names, Hanni Woodbury’s 1,500-page Onondaga-English dictionary, transcriptions of Seneca, Mohawk, and Onondaga versions of the Great Law and the Code of Handsome Lake, or Gawi’io, and Abrams’s own PhD dissertation on Onondaga pronouns.

We were discussing his recent experience at an event at Onondaga longhouse, where a critical audience of elders and traditionalist cognoscenti observed Abrams’s delivery of the lengthy oral text known in English as the Thanksgiving Prayer. Though he grew up around the language, his mastery came in adulthood, and now, in his full maturity, he acknowledges that he is one of the new generation of adults whose job is as daunting as it is necessary: to carry on the intellectual life of the Iroquois. Doing so requires a set of competencies analogous to the expertise of the Hebrew or Orthodox Christian scholar who must know not only the sacred text but also the voluminous commentary of generations of the wise. But there is one critical difference: All the Iroquois texts are unwritten (though many have been transcribed) in languages whose speakers have been under daily pressure for more than a century not to speak them.

When he’s not running the museum north of Niagara Falls on the Tuscarora Reservation, Abrams is in charge of the applied Iroquoian linguistics program at Syracuse University. He trains teachers who are working on language-retention programs in the 18 US and Canadian communities of Iroquoia where the languages are still spoken. Syracuse University itself has long since been a center of intellectual activity for Iroquoia, not only because it is just a few miles from the Onondaga territory, the ancient capital of the Six Nations confederacy, but because of the Haudenosaunee Promise scholarship program at SU, which has given more than 100 kids from both US and Canadian Iroquoia support for their undergraduate education.

It’s good news for Iroquois cultural continuity and, it is hoped, for Iroquois linguistic persistence, a persistence that previous well-intended educators almost succeeded in stamping out. South of Buffalo, on the Cattaraugus Reservation, is the hulking brick campus of the former Thomas Indian School, a boarding school at which generations of Iroquois children were instructed in servitude, English, and in the arts and technologies that well-intended reformers had decided would help the children best accommodate to American life. The generations of trauma that such institutions visited upon Iroquoia is a central focus of the new book by Anthony F.C. Wallace. His Tuscarora: a History is a brilliant, depressing, insightful reminder of just how daunting the challenges of cultural survival for these folks still are because mere physical survival has itself been in question frequently in the past 300 years—especially for the least populous of the Six Nations, the Tuscarora.

Personal history

Everybody reading this article in Buffalo knows something about the Six Nations people. That’s because of the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s three casinos, because of the presence of so many Iroquois athletes on the team roster of the Buffalo Bandits professional lacrosse team, because of the occasional bumper-sticker or decal of the wampum belts one sees when out in traffic, because of the fairly frequent major media coverage of Seneca politics, economics, court cases, and smoke-shop goings-on. Neighbors always know something about neighbors, even if what is known isn’t very precise. Out of a regional population of just over 1.2 million, there are fewer Iroquoians than there are members of most other self-aware ethnic communities, except perhaps Jews, Greeks, Chinese, or Lebanese—but far fewer than there are folks who self-identify as Poles, Irish, Italians, Germans, or African Americans.

In Western New York’s polyethnic mosaic, where most folks share the experiences of driving cars, shopping at the mall, eating bad fast food, and clustering with people who are like themselves, it’s still, though, not uncommon for many non-Iroquoians to have personal connections with individual Iroquoians.

It’s that personal interaction that old Tony Wallace writes about in what one might expect would be another ascetic, scholarly book from the author of the classic Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, which is mainly concerned with the history of what’s sometimes known as “the Handsome Lake religion.”

Wallace’s new book is an accessible, insightful, and challenging work that embodies the self-aware, self-critical thinking that now characterizes the discipline of anthropology, and that professional students of Iroquoia, mainly the late William N. Fenton, led the way in developing. This is no mere report by a casual observer: Wallace first came to Tuscarora in 1948 when he was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, working on a project his professors assigned him to, which was getting Tuscaroras to take Rorshach psychological profiling tests. Wallace and his young family stayed with Tuscarora hosts and got to know families with whom he has kept up relationships ever since. His portrait of Tuscarora history utilizes the expected tools of a scholar—old colonial-period documents, including Spanish texts from a 16th-century captive named Francisco de Chicora, who may himself have been a Tuscarora from North Carolina—but most movingly, sometimes shockingly, current testimony from Tuscarora people whose families have invited Wallace into their lives.

Wallace’s book on the Tuscaroras should have a wide audience, especially here, because he does such a superb job of explaining that these folks have maintained a cultural integrity despite astounding challenges. There were not more than 500 Tuscaroras who moved north, survivors of both Old World diseases and the brutal conflicts with North Carolina colonials, to formally join the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois League in the early 1720s. After the Revolutionary War, the Tuscaroras were granted some of the land they still hold today, notwithstanding the intrusion of the Niagara Power Project, whose reservoir sliced off and inundated the southwestern part of their land. Most Tuscaroras live in Niagara County. Back in the 1790s, some joined Joseph Brant and those Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and some few Senecas who accepted the invitation of King George III to establish themselves on what is now called the Six Nations Reserve in the Grand River valley south of Brantford, Ontario, about an hour’s drive from here. There are, perhaps, about 1,000 Tuscaroras. Their language is Iroquoian, but quite dissimilar to the Northern Iroquoian languages spoken by the other five members of the Haudenosaunee people. Wallace subtly and capably explains the points of commonality and connection with this people that decided to seek protection from the Europeans at a time when the Iroquois practice was forcible incorporation of other Iroquoians (Hurons, Neutrals, Wendats, Eries, Susquehannocks), not creating additional member nations by “extending the rafters” of the symbolic Haudenosaunee longhouse that is the League, except for the Tuscaroras.

The anthropology profession has been a part of Tuscarora cultural existence for the past century, at least since the arrival at Tuscarora of the Seneca scholar, engineer, and officer Ely Parker’s sister. Parker was Rochester lawyer Henry Lewis Morgan’s collaborator in the massively influential 1851 League of the Hodenosaunee, which is regarded as the first ethnography of the modern era. Ely Parker was a Tonawanda Seneca who was General Ulysses S. Grant’s adjutant; it was Parker who drafted the terms of surrender for the Virginia traitor Robert E. Lee to sign at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. Parker’s sister married an ex-soldier named Mount Pleasant, which has been a famous surname at Tuscarora for more than a century. Genealogy is an ongoing, absorbing, active part of current community life there.

Though Native American children were taught to play football at the Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus Reservation, the true sport of the Haudenosaunee remained lacrosse.

Neighbors known, unknown

So to read Wallace’s book is to look over the fence into the just-visible yard next door—something one wouldn’t ordinarily do unless invited to do so. But when a 60-year veteran visitor, a trusted person among those people, gets invited back to the homes of relatives of his first hosts, explicitly to write a book that knits his scholarship with their advice and direction, it is then, quite frankly, that we realize that we have all been invited in.

These are a people who are self-aware and self-confident in their identity, such that they continue to invite thinkers and writers into their homes. And what we learn from Wallace is that these folks, though they are economically integrated into the off-reservation world of Western New York, and use English almost exclusively rather than the Tuscarora that they used to use and the Seneca or Mohawk that they also used to have to know, too, for Haudenosaunee matters civil and religious. And we learn that they drive cars, and shop where everybody shops, including at Smokin’ Joe’s, and are nominally Christian (mainly Baptist)—but also that they maintain a world apart, a world of striking continuities with 17th-century North Carolina and 18th-century New York, with a very different understanding and practice of personal responsibility and of governmental decision-making that still utilizes the structures, practices, and manners of the Six Nations confederacy that was formed at least 600 years ago on roots imponderably more ancient. Their government is not the elected council and presidency of the Seneca Nation of Indians: It is the government of clans, of clan matrons or mothers who “raise up” council members, some of whom become title-holders in the Iroquois confederacy.

We also learn that these neighbors could give a hoot about football, because the real game is lacrosse, the sacred game, the Iroquois game. Percy Abrams, the Onondaga linguist who runs the art museum at Smokin’ Joe’s, was also executive director of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, the one that tried in 2010 to compete in the World Championship held in the United Kingdom, but didn’t go because the British wouldn’t accept Haudenosaunee passports. A leading Onondaga religious and cultural authority, retired UB American Studies professor Oren Lyons, was an NCAA lacrosse star at Syracuse University, playing on the same team with a guy named Jim Brown, the football hero. Lacrosse is an active part of Iroquoian identity, no less so at Tuscarora than at any of the other reservations that share a media market with the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s billboards and TV ads.

William Fenton, the late dean of Iroquoian studies, the scholar whose connections with the leading personalities of Iroquoia went even deeper than Wallace’s and who published books and scholarly articles about them for almost 70 years, set a standard for students of Iroquoia. It is not enough to learn the languages, know the treaties, attend the ceremonies, and know what should and what should not be written about. (Fenton is criticized for his last book, seen by some as a tell-all about a Seneca religious observance.) It is imperative that one demonstrate something known, in the English used in Iroquoia, as the “good mind.” Those words are the short phrase that encapsulates the continuity of Iroquoian culture, insofar as they implicate the creation story, the founding of the League of the Iroquois, and the goal and true purpose of the condolence ceremony that is at the center of Iroquois self-governance.

Wallace’s book, probably his last, is a very respectful, hopeful explanation of how these neighbors persist, notwithstanding the aggrievements of forced-acculturation boarding schools, overwhelming governmental intrusions, the inundation of the material culture of us newcomers to Iroquoia. Tuscarora: a History is free of illusions, worshipfulness, pity. It’s an exercise in, and an exemplar of, “the good mind.”

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at

blog comments powered by Disqus