The Bark Longhouse at Ganondagan in Victor, N.Y., is open to visitors. | Photo: Sue Henninger.
About 20 miles southeast of Rochester, nestled deep in the hills of Victor, N.Y., is Ganondagan (pronounced “Gah-non-dah-GAN”). The 4,500 inhabitants of this vibrant Seneca Nation farmed and hunted this land long before the Dutch, English and French traders arrived in the 1600s.
Following the invasion of foreigners, Ganondagan experienced years of violence. According to Meg Joseph, executive director of the nonprofit organization Friends of Ganondagan, French settlers confronted the Seneca people in a military campaign. Failing to defeat them, the French attempted to starve the Seneca off their native land by destroying corn crops — the Nation’s primary food source. This endeavor, if successful, would have eliminated the Seneca’s control over the desirable Niagara frontier and its river. Ganondagan was burned to the ground twice, first by the Frenchman Marquis de Denonville in 1687, and later by the English-Americans following the Revolutionary War in the 1700s.
Despite these destructive efforts, Ganondagan improbably survives and thrives. Now a State Historic Site staffed by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Ganondagan is managed by G. Peter Jemison, a registered member of the Seneca Nation and a renowned mixed-media artist. The nonprofit Friends of Ganondagan provides financial and public relations support, and hosts educational programming and cultural events to raise public awareness of Native Americans’ past and present contributions to society.
You might wonder why Ganondagan’s 600 acres are such an important part of the Finger Lakes heritage. “If you ask people about the history of Native Americans in this area, they can tell you up to a certain point,” Ms. Joseph, previously a teacher, explains. “But after that, Native Americans tend to become frozen in a certain [earlier] historic time period and seen as one homogeneous group, rather than as many separate nations each with their own traditions.” She adds that the Seneca Nation is an integral part of the Haudenosaunee (pronounced “Ho-day-no-shaw-nee”) Confederacy, better known as the Six Nations, all of whom are still active and vibrant parts of American culture.
Ms. Joseph illustrates her point by noting that most New Yorkers are aware of the Native Americans affinity with nature, but don’t always understand how that translates in the present. “Native Americans have always lived by ‘green’ principles, even before they became trendy,” Ms. Joseph tells us. One indigenous value, the Seventh Generation Principle, exemplifies this long-lens worldview, urging everyone to act as the earth’s caretakers by making decisions about how we live today based on how our choices will impact the next seven generations.
The methods these tribes use to hunt and grow crops also encourages practices we know as repurposing, recycling and reusing. Take for example, the deer: its innards can be used as bags, the hide for blankets or clothing, the hooves for musical instruments and the bones for ceremonial necklaces. Or corn, a staple of the Native American lifestyle. The longtime Native practice of crop rotation kept soil at optimal production level, and cornhusks can be used to make mats, shoes or dolls.
To step inside of the Ganondagan experience, tour Ganondagan’s Bark Longhouse, led by guides including Ronnie Reitter (Seneca Nation), Michael Galban (Washoe Paiute Nation) and Tonia Loran-Galban (Mohawk Nation), all of whom have firsthand knowledge of New York State’s Native American history and current viewpoints.
The Longhouse contains authentic and reproduced 17th century artifacts. The recreations are carefully crafted by individuals like Mr. Galban, Ms. Reitter and Ms. Loran-Galban, each of whom possesses expertise and hands-on skills in an area of Native American culture. If your eye falls on a gun or piece of china in the Longhouse, that’s no accident, says Ms. Joseph. Trade with Europeans through the Seneca Trail, which stretched from Maine to Florida and into the western settlements, brought foreign objects to the region.
The Longhouse isn’t the only historically accurate Ganondagan experience. As guests enter the property, there’s a small visitor center and gift shop. Past the Longhouse are three marked hiking trails, including the Trail of Peace, which tells the Seneca history through interpretive signage, and the Granary Trail, where visitors can relive through journal entries from the Denonville campaign that July day when the French destroyed Ganondagan. Ms. Joseph is especially enamored with the Earth is our Mother Trail, which highlights the Seneca’s use of indigenous plants in both practical and medicinal ways. For those who love flowers, the Three Sisters Garden and Creators Garden are excellent stops.
“We’d be hard-pressed to find another resource like Ganondagan in our area,” Ms. Joseph observes, adding that if we are interested in learning more about contemporary Native American music, dance and art, she has just the event for us. Every summer, Ganondagan hosts the two-day Native American Dance & Music Festival (held this past weekend). The purpose of this event, now in its 23rd year, is to showcase the talent of Native American artists and musicians. The annual festival also provides attendees with the opportunity to “compare and contrast” Nations from around the country. “When you seen that the instruments, clothing and art are all different between the various nations it deepens your understanding of how diverse the cultures really are,” Ms. Joseph says.
Festival demonstrations can include lacrosse stick crafting, creating what Ms. Joseph calls “utilitarian objects,” and art. An artist market makes these and other products available for purchase. A Family Discovery Tent offers crafts for children, like cat-tail ducks and felt snakes, and hosts educational displays; this past festival exhibited wampum belts, and also shared the culture of the southwestern tribes of the Navajo Nation.
Tempting traditional Native refreshments are sold at food trucks, including Indian tacos, fry bread, savory corn soup (made from hulled corn, salted pork and kidney beans) and the indigenous “strawberry drink,” a refreshing Haudenosaunee beverage made from wild strawberries, water, and honey, sugar or maple syrup.
The highlight of the Festival weekend is always the entertainment. Performers are drawn from diverse regions, as well as from different nations. Entertainers in 2013 included Jennifer Kreisberg (Tuscarora Nation), former member of the award-winning a capella Native American trio, Ulali; Nashville-based “Lord of the Strings,” Arvel Bird (Southern Paiute), who combines Celtic and Native American-influenced music interspersed with stories and lore. The 2014 lineup featured the Dineh-Tah Navajo Dancers from Albuquerque, N.M., who Ms. Joseph describes as “breathtaking,” and Grammy Award winner Joanne Shenandoah from New York State’s Oneida Nation.
Whether you prefer a lively, interactive visit or an educational, more contemplative experience, make the journey to Ganondagan this summer. It’s a place you won’t soon forget!
IF YOU GO
Ganondagan State Historic Site
1488 State Route 444
Victor, New York
Tickets are $12.00 for adults, $10.00 for seniors (62 and over), $7.00 for students with ID, and $5.00 for children (ages 3-18). Children ages two and under are free.
Parking is free and a free shuttle bus runs from Fireman’s Field off Maple Avenue in Victor.
The festival is handicap accessible and there is also on-site shuttle service for those who need it.