Finding Ties of Connection at Ganondagan

Peter Jemison is the manager of Ganondagan, a New York State Historic Site south of Rochester. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Today’s post is by guest blogger Bob Sessions:

Construction workers don’t usually have  beautiful images of herons on their hats, but Peter Jemison isn’t your ordinary construction worker. In fact, he’s manager of Ganondagan, a New York State Historic Site near Victor (and the hat is temporary, just until the site’s new Seneca Art and Culture Center is completed).

Lori and I met Peter Jemison when we were at a meeting of the Midwest Travel Writers Association in the Finger Lakes of New York. In talking with him and touring the site, I remembered a nearly forgotten thread in my own life as well as learned about the revitalized spiritual and cultural traditions of the Seneca people.

A reconstructed long house recreates 17th-century life at Ganondagan. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Ganondagan is located on the site of a 17th-century Seneca settlement of 4,500 people. In 1687, it was attacked and burned by the French as part of their efforts to monopolize the fur trade. Three centuries later, New York State reestablished the site, rebuilding a long house similar to those of the original settlement as a way to honor Seneca traditions and educate the larger world about their history. The Seneca are one of the six nations that comprise the Iroquois (also known as the Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, whose democratic ideals helped inspire the U.S. Constitution.

The interior of the Ganondagan long house is decorated in traditional ways. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Part way through our tour, I had a flash of recognition when I heard the name John Mohawk mentioned. I was taken back to my undergraduate days when I first encountered Akwesasne Notes, a publication he founded and edited. For most of two decades I avidly read this journal. Because of Mohawk’s influence, I began a lifelong study of First Nations cultures, anthropology, histories, and philosophies. I taught college courses on Native American philosophies (always with some trepidation, for these are very different cultures than my own). I encountered many students who, like me, were transformed when they encountered philosophers and visionaries such as Mohawk.

I was happy to see the ways in which Mohawk’s philosophy continues to live on at Ganondagan, particularly in its Iroquois White Corn Project. Kim Morf, project manager, told us how John Mohawk had begun the initiative in the late 1990s because he realized that the deteriorating health of his people was due in part to their modern diets. His solution was a version of eating local and organic food, but with a twist—for he knew that health involves much more than just taking in nutrients.

Kim Morf is manager for the Iroquois White Corn Project. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Thus was born the White Corn Project. The Senecas at Ganondagan use a native variety of corn that dates back at least 1,400 years. Volunteers keep the old agricultural methods alive by planting, tending, husking and grinding the corn in traditional ways. In doing so, they also nurture bonds of community and continue rituals their people have done for millennia.

This ancient form of white corn, it turns out, has many beneficial characteristics, including being less sweet and more nutritious than modern corn. One of our guides told me of how she, like many in her Seneca community, suffered from diabetes and related conditions. “Western medical treatment made me sick, and so I gave John Mohawk’s way a try for three months,” she told me. “After eating white corn grits for breakfast instead of processed food my blood sugar returned to healthy levels.”

I would guess her improved health is also due to the community support and cultural grounding she receives by being part of the White Corn Project, for those are as healing as the nutrients in the corn. Everyone who works with the corn is supposed to have “good mind,” meaning that they have loving and good intentions. It is believed that this spirit passes into the corn and benefits those who eat it (you can buy various products using this white corn through the Iroquois White Corn Project).

John Mohawk founded the Iroquois White Corn Project in 1997. (photo from Iroquois White Corn Project)
John Mohawk founded the Iroquois White Corn Project in 1997. (photo from Iroquois White Corn Project)

The climax of our visit came when we toured the new $13 million Seneca Art and Culture Center, which will open this fall. It was there that I met the man mentioned above, Peter Jemison. He is a cousin of John Mohawk and has been laboring to bring the center into being for 15 years (a talented artist, Jemison drew the heron on the hard hat pictured above because he is a member of the Heron Clan of the Seneca).

“This project takes us from a six-month operation to a year-round facility,” he told our group. “Our goal is to tell the world that we are not a people in the past tense. We live today. We have adapted to the modern world, but we still maintain our language, ceremonies, land base, government, lineages and culture. When you’re a native person, your story is often told by other people. Here, we tell our own story.”

The new center will feature educational displays and facilities, an orientation theater, a multi-purpose auditorium, gallery space, a catering kitchen, and gift shop. A highlight will be Iroquois Creation Story, a film produced by Jemison that is based on a retelling by John Mohawk of a traditional story.

I hope to go back to Ganondagan‘s Seneca Art and Culture Center once it opens, but even in incomplete form, I found it very moving. As we were leaving, I was proud to shake Peter Jemison’s hand and tell him of my own connection to his remarkable cousin. Despite our brief acquaintance, I felt a deep connection with him. After all, we shared the same mentor, John Mohawk, whose spirit lives on in me as well as in him.

For More Information: Ganondagan New York State Historic Site; Finger Lakes Visitors Connection

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10 Replies to “Finding Ties of Connection at Ganondagan

  1. Oh, Bob! Such a moving story. And so well-told. The heron on the construction helmet is a fitting tribute to Jemison’s tribal affiliation, but in the context of the story, it also strikes me as the ghostly image of the beautiful and unforgettable encounter you had as a young man with John Mohawk. Of course, the project at Seneca Falls is a m a z i n g. This restoration project is a great gift to us all!

  2. Seneca Falls was one of my favorite places in Upstate New York before this, and now it’s even better. Thanks for telling us about it, Bob.

  3. Now that’s a pilgrimage! I can imagine your brain’s activity as old memories awakened and feelings were evoked. And I am not surprised as you are one of the most spiritual of persons known to me. Thank you, Bob. You must return for a future visit… But, I have to ask if this means you now like grits?!

  4. PS That is the largest ear of corn I’ve ever seen! For years my parents grew white-kernel Silver Queen Corn up on Bluff Mountain in NC. I suspect we can thank Native Americans for it.

    1. Corn, of course, is a gift from Native Americans. They couple it with squash and beans, further staples of our diets. It’s interesting to see how the local/organic food movement coalesces with their return to tradition.

  5. Bob and Lori, thank you so much for this wonderful blog!

    Just to clarify on behalf of Ganondagan, Chris’ reference in the first response to Seneca Falls (a town about 35 miles east of where Ganondagan is located) should not be confused with the Ganondagan’s Seneca Art & Culture Center. Thanks to the original Native American heritage in the Finger Lakes, the usage of “Seneca” is extremely prolific in a number of locations. Ganondagan is, in fact, in Victor, NY, and considered a suburb of Rochester. Thanks again!

  6. Nice job, Bob, of bringing our Ganondagan visit to life. Love the personal connection and your photos. Always enjoy traveling with Lori and you!

  7. Thank you Bob for introducing me into a such an ancient and to me insufficiently known
    society! I was impressed when you told me about your deep interest in the culture
    of the Indians
    when the two of you visited me some time ago and that you had had contact with Heyemiost
    Storm, a most remarkable man who happens to have written me a wonderful letter
    one day informing me that his impression of my son was that deep inside he was still
    an Indian boy trying to find out where he might find spurs of his roots in the western
    world which made it hard for him to find his grounding in life…… He told me some
    special things about myself and my influence on him which touiched me deeply..
    I was exactly the mother he needed. I still treasure his letter. Thanks again |Bob
    , you somehow succeed in inspiring me over and over again and for the second time
    in one week even.

  8. Something went wrong…..So sorry that I only shared my own personal associations regarding your great story but of course this story was the inspiration for mine.
    I never heard about the Seneca people and I am impressed by what you tell about
    them. Such a powerful group with so much to tell about living in peace with the
    environment and nature. Great story about the white corn. And so glad for you that
    you could shake hands with another pupil of your great mentor..

  9. Thanks for this blog, Bob. Having toured Gonondagan with you, your story reminded me of why I found this site among the most fascinating among the many we visited in the Finger Lakes region. Whenever I tread upon ground where great native civilizations have existed, I’m always reminded of how deeply spiritual they were and how very presumptuous the European interlopers were in foisting their own religions on them. I, too, hope to return to Gonondagan when the Seneca Art and Culture Center is open.

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