As a tribal historian who is also an artist, I’ve always been interested in tribal material arts from other regions. Because I live in close proximity to North and South Dakota, the tribal arts of the Plains has always held my interest. Southwestern tribal arts have also been an area of interest. I have a sister who is from Laguna Pueblo. I’ve visited her on several occasions and she introduced me to the art of that area. Through her, I have a small art collection – pottery from Acoma and several Kachinas.
Recently I traveled to Niagara Falls, New York for a cancer conference. Niagara Falls, Buffalo and the surrounding area is the homeland of the Seneca. In their own language, the Seneca are called the Onöndowága - the Keepers of the Western Door. They are part of the Haudenosaunee – the Iroquois Confederacy. Of the Six Nations, the Seneca live furthest to the west. They are also known as the People of the Green Hill.
Although I’m familiar with the Haudenosaunee in relation to politics , I’ve never looked at their material arts. I find this odd since the Iroquoian language tribes and Anishinaabe language tribes resided in the same region. Despite tribal conflicts and warfare between the two groups, the cross-cultural transmission of values and arts would have occurred in times of peace through gatherings and trade.
I never really looked at Iroquoian art per se until recently. Not too long ago, I did a survey of Iroquoian moccasins on a Facebook page. The commonality between the Iroquois and Ojibwe moccasins was the use of floral motifs which is expected regarding Woodland peoples. However, the method of application differed. The Iroquoian peoples used a raised beadwork technique; the Ojibwe used a flat beaded method. In addition, older Iroquoian moccasins used porcupine and bird quills, and shell beads before the advent of European beads via the trade network. It can be assumed that the Ojibwe also used similar materials although we don't have examples of such moccasin work from that time period.
My personal introduction to Haudenosaunee art was a visit to Ganondagan located near Victor, New York. The area was the focus of the war against the Seneca and the atrocious French Expedition of 1687. Although the expedition failed, it left Seneca villages in ruins with longhouses, gardens, and corn bins in flames under the scorched earth policy of Marquis de Denonville.
In 1966, the site of Ganondagan was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Ganondagan Longhouse was built at the site of the village and dedicated in 1998. The Longhouse is “furnished as closely as possible to an original 1670 longhouse, complete with replicas of European and colonial trade goods and items created and crafted by the Seneca. Also in the longhouse are crops, herbs, and medicines grown, harvested, and preserved by the Seneca who lived atop the hill at Ganondagan.”
In 2015, the Seneca Art and Culture Center at Ganondagan opened. The Center features interactive, multimedia exhibits and galleries, and an orientation theater featuring the Iroquois Creation film.
My host and guide for my trip to New York was Joy Rivera. I was a co-presenter with Joy for a breakout session by the American Indian Cancer Foundation. Joy is Seneca and from the Cattaraugus Reservation. I couldn’t ask for a better guide.
The conference ended early Sunday and Joy gave me a list of things to do. One of the items on the list was Ganondagan and that immediately piqued my interest. I wanted to know more about the people whose homeland I was visiting.
We made the two hour trip to Ganondagan and arrived at 3:30. Before touring the Ganondagan site, you are at first led to the orientation theater. We watched a film on the Iroquois creation story featuring Skywoman, Turtle Island, and her twins. It was a beautiful film, extremely well-produced, with live action combined with animation and CGI. We have a similar story in my culture (Ojibwe) but the Iroquois story differs in certain details. Of course, there is a shared commonality in the origin story of Skywoman. Famed writer Basil Johnston collected several origin stories that featured cross-connections between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe.
When the film was over, the staff recommended we visit the Longhouse because it closed at 4:00. When we returned, we had about a half-hour to tour the interactive gallery.
One of my disappointments was the gift shop was closed when we got there (it closed at 3:00). I was interested in looking at books for sale. But there were two books available at the information desk – “Art From Ganondagan” and “War Against The Seneca: The French Expedition of 1687.” I purchased both.
Art From Ganondagan was/is especially interesting to me. When I was teaching Native Art history in tribal schools and tribal colleges, I always emphasized that early traditional tribal art formed a common language. Indeed, early art worldwide was a common indigenous language. Pictographs were thoughts and ideas expressed through visual images. Because there were no written languages, there were barriers to understanding one another supratribally. However, there was a commonality in the earliest traditional art forms that are depicted in rock art, i.e., pictographic art. Such art later was incorporated into the motifs and designs in the material arts. Tribes maintained their own styles, yet the imagery was interconnected and understood with other tribes, particularly between tribes whose homelands overlapped. The Iroquois and Anishinaabe were/are Woodland peoples. Both incorporated floral designs, first in geometric/abstracted quillwork and then representational beadwork, that reflected the shared environment they lived in.
When I read the essay, Art From Ganondagan, I was struck by the similarities between Anishinaabe art and Iroquois art. Certainly there were differences because they represented two different tribal belief systems, yet they spoke a common language.
As noted by Richard Hill in his essay, Art From Ganondagan:
“Tribal art provides evidence for the social order, spiritual values and the history of a people. Art is essential to the daily life of traditional societies. Native American art reflects fundamental truths about relationships between people, and the interdependence of their society with the natural environment…Art transcends generations. Traditional images suggest what previous Seneca felt and thought…Seneca art of the seventeenth century is characterized by cultural metaphors and personal emblems that make a strong statement about the community’s ability to endure…The oral history and material culture of the Seneca are intimately related. Natural materials are modified by hand to convey individual messages through an accepted community aesthetic. Art connects the people to their society, to nature, and to the forces of the universe.”
“Seneca belief impacted directly on the art of Ganondagan. Seneca narratives are full of images that help keep the tradition alive. Plants, animals, celestial bodies, and spirits are personified. Everything has animate energy.”
“In general, the art of Ganondagan can be grouped into three design categories. The first is geometric. Common motifs are repeating patterns of triangles, parallel lines, zig-zags, crosses, circles, arches and dots. The second is semi-realistic three-dimensional figures on clay pipes, antler figures, wood carvings, and pottery rims. The third is two dimensional images on antler and wood combs.”
Art from Gannagaro
The last section of the book features photos of the art of Gannagaro (the European name for Ganondagan). The forward to the book - A Theft From The Dead: An Iroquois Perspective – notes:
“We do not doubt the artistic merit of these works, but are troubled by the important ethical question of how the works were acquired. Most of the objects illustrated in this catalogue were taken from the graves of Seneca men, women, and children. ..We mourn the loss. We are opposed to any disturbance of the remains of our ancestors.
“It is no surprise that the best examples of Seneca art are found in graves. It is a testament to the significance of the burial ritual. It is a demonstration of the humanity of the people who produced the art and wanted their deceased relatives to carry these objects to the spirit world. We continue to believe in that journey; it is part of our spiritual identity. The proper care of these objects is part of our moral obligation to the past, the present, and the future.
“Our survey of museum collections has only affirmed that most of the archaeological objects have come from graves. We ask that you consider this as you look at the works of art in this publication.”
Richard Hill notes: “When viewing the art in this catalogue, it is evident that the works are not static. These three hundred year old objects move the modern viewer. Even though the Seneca have no word for it, art was an everyday activity in Seneca society. The visual arts have become a special expression of many Seneca. The illustrations that follow remind us that art in the Seneca community has a long history of manifesting personal identity and providing a Seneca perspective to a changing world.”
The following features some of the items in the catalogue with their accompanying notes.
Shell Gorget: Worn as a necklace, clan shell discs were often engraved with geometric designs. The triangles on the gorget could represent the Iroquois nations.
Shell Gorget: The circle is a common Indian symbol of unity and is repeated on this fragmented gorget.
Shell Disc Necklace: Discoidal shell beads appear to have been very popular and fashionable among the old Iroquois and thousands of beads have been found at Seneca sites.
Shell Bird Effigy: The beauty in the simplicity of this rendering of a bird makes this small pendant exceptional. The line around the neck suggests that this piece represents a loon. There are two holes on each shoulder that could have been used to attach a pair of wings.
Shell Beads: Long tubular beads were fashioned from the thick center section of large conch shells.
Pottery Marking Tool.
Hair combs were made from wide sections of elk or moose...Animal effigies are the most popular motifs on Seneca hair combs, often reflecting the clan or medicine animal of the wearer. Hair combs provide examples of the bilateral symmetry that is characteristic of much Iroquoian art. Such designs evoke a feeling of harmony and balance.
Spirit Lines: These figures have special lines engraved in their surfaces that go from heart to mouth. These lines can be called spirit lines, since they represent the life and power of the animal spirit. The bear is associated with great medicine.
Clay from Mother Earth provided one of the most versatile media for the Seneca artist. Although the use of native ceramics began to decline in the 17th century, examples of Iroquoian pottery remained in Seneca households.
Smoking Pipes: The Seneca took their smoking seriously, producing a great number of clay pipes...Clay pipes illustrate the diversity and creativity of Seneca design. Handmade pipes were popular with both men and women. An effigy figure usually faces the smoker.
Stone Otter Effigy.
To me, the art of the Seneca, and the art of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, equates the ancient art of Africa, China, Egypt, or any other world art. Art represents the human experience. The white world holds its ancient art aloft as a form of racial superiority. For them, it is a pillar of civilization. However, all art represents civilization. Art is the innate human ability to express to historical-cultural experiences artistically. The aesthetics used do not imply primitiveness or superiority. They are all equal regardless of aesthetics. They inform us of the past, the present, and the future. When we teach our children about art, the focus needs to be one's cultural art and the art of the indigenous peoples with whom we live and whose history we share. Because the art of Turtle Island is us. Through tribal arts we know who we are and where we came from. We are the beauty of this land and that beauty is expressed through our arts. It can be nothing less.
© All Rights Reserved, 2017, Robert DesJarlait