Speech by Rebecca Bowen, Archives Director. September 25th, 2021
By Rebecca Bowen. Photos by Newsletter and Seneca Media.
I want to speak about this year’s Remember the Removal theme “Sustaining Our Culture and Traditions.” But first what does it mean to sustain? According to the dictionary to sustain means to give support, to nourish, to keep up, to prolong.
Six decades ago we were in crisis mode here at Ohi:yo’. All that we knew, our very physical surroundings, were being demolished, bulldozed, and burned. But during that dark time there were cultural lifelines that would keep us connected to one another and to our Seneca traditions. Those lifelines were embodied in our elders whose greatest desire – I believe – was that we not forget who are. These elders saw what was happening and knew it was vital that they be proactive for our very survival. With that being said, we remember them today and acknowledge their determination to sustain our culture and traditions.
In an article published in 1958 (Erie Times News Magazine 06/29/1958) it was reported that “a group of Senecas have been moved to preserve for posterity the true Indian way of life and the finer aspects of the early Indian culture. To do this they have erected an Indian village at Onoville, NY, on the grounds of the reservation. Here, in surroundings highly suggestive of the old days on the Allegheny, these modern Senecas don the regalia of their forefathers and dance the tribal dances that date back hundreds and hundreds of years in Seneca history. And too, they chant the age-old Seneca songs in the age-old Seneca tongue.” The Indian village at Onoville was called Oi-hes-tah which means resting place or rendezvous. Gertrude Jackson Claflin was instrumental in its creation.
When the article about Oi-hes-tah was published in 1958 the Seneca Nation was in the throes of a court battle to stop the construction of the Kinzua Dam and Allegheny reservoir. In March of that year the D.C. federal court ruled in Seneca Nation of Indians v. Brucker [Wilber M., Secretary of the Army], Corps of Engineers that the sovereign government-to-government promises of the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty did not protect us from the powers of Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and ultimately the construction of the Kinzua Dam. We appealed but in late November of that year the appeals court again ruled against us and in favor of the Army Corps. This was a time of great uncertainty for our people.
In 1961 an Indian Village, and that is what it was called, was constructed on property donated by DeForrest and Gladys Abrams, Sr.. It was situated on the north side of a knoll at the junction of old Route 17 and old Route 280 in the Coldspring community. Similar to Oi-hes-tah, the Indian Village was a private group effort that included Mr. and Mrs. Abrams, Walter and Dorothy Jimerson, Ernie and Sally Crowe, Lester and Hazel Jimerson, Paul and Mamie Jones, and Avery and Fidelia Jimerson. I remember visiting the Indian Village as I’m sure some of you also have memories of going there. Despite the wearing of western-style headdresses by the men which they viewed as “borrowing,” they were proactive in the survival of Seneca social songs and dances, as well as the language during this time of great uncertainty.
There’s no written record of why these villages were erected, but I believe these elders felt the need to not only sustain our culture but to share it with the outside world.
After the Removal our old neighborhoods were gone and we were relocated to the Steamburg and Jimersontown relocation areas beginning in late 1964. The Haley Community Building, many of you knew it as the JoJo Building, was constructed in Jimersontown and opened to the community in May of 1966. It immediately became the hub of community activity here at Ohi:yo’. The Nation offices were located there as well as the Council chambers. New community organizations such as the Senior Citizens and the 21-Plus Club met in the dining room. The kids hung out in the gym and the arts and crafts room. It was in the arts and crafts room that elders such as Mariam Lee, Dorothy Jimerson, Avery and Fidelia Jimerson (also known as Ham & Fi), Mae Halftown, Helen Harris, Nellie Jack and George Heron came to teach Onön:dowa’ga:’Gawë:nö’ and traditional crafts such as beadwork. If there were others I have not mentioned please let me know.
I believe we were a community wrapped in grief during these years. Depending on the source you consult, there are anywhere from 5 to 7 to 12 steps in the grief process. They say there is a step where shock initiates us into mourning. This step allows us time to absorb what has happened and to begin to adjust to the loss. But they also say it is the guidance of caring people that sustains us.
These elders were our caring people. They supported and nourished us despite the great loss they were experiencing. They chose to sustain us. It is important we remember them for their efforts to sustain our culture and traditions. It was at a time of great loss and these elders stepped forward with love to carry us through and make sure we did not forget.
Remember the Removal – Sustaining our Culture and Traditions was held Saturday, September 25th starting with a 2.5 mile walk of remembrance from the Red House Bridge to the corner of Breed Run. Gonio Miller gave the ganonyok and Tyler Heron shared memories of the pre-Kinzua Days along Ohi:yo’. Photos of the former homesteads were along the road.
Craft demonstrators and vendors were onsite indoors and outdoors at the Seneca Allegany Administration Building with Covid-19 precautions in place.
Treasurer Ricky Armstrong, Councillor Tina Abrams on behalf of President Pagels, and Becky Bowen spoke. Gifts were given to the remaining head of the households. Although some have passed on in the last year. They were still honored; the late Ralph Bowen, the late Ellen John, Opal Frank, Rovena Watt, Caroline Brant, and Bennet Wheeler. Since the event, Opal Frank has passed away, leaving only 3 remaining head of households left.
The Remember the Removal Committee would like to say “Weso nya:wëh!” to all of the of Seneca Nation departments, volunteers, singers, speakers, and participants that helped make the day a success. We came together as a community to remember and heal. Nya:wëh!
- Seneca EMS
- Seneca Nations Marshalls
- Gakwi:yo:h Farms
- Ted John
- Tyler Heron
- Penny Minner
- Pete Jones
- Patrick Redeye
- All Volunteers
- Seneca Nation Crime Victim Services
- All vendors
- All demonstrators
Joe Stahlman, Rebecca Bowen, Nancy Toth, Angela Steckman, Barbara Lynn Hill, Christine Perez, Tami Watt, Fallon Snyder, Councillor Tina Abrams, Councillor Arlene Bova