Essay IV. Tying Seneca Stories to the Land
Starting in my fourth essay and continuing into my fifth, entitled The Dancing Boys, I present my answer to the question of how the traditional Iroquois stories are tied to the land.
Long before the first white settlers had came to upstate New York, the region was the homeland of the Iroquois Confederacy, a league of five nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (later joined by a sixth, the Tuscarora). Of these, I was most interested in the Seneca, whose territory extended (roughly speaking) from present-day Rochester south to present-day Elmira. My goal was to learn what I could about their stories.
While in Washington, DC, during the summer of 1991, I discovered a promising source. In the bookstore of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History I bought a reprinted version of Seneca Myths and Folk Tales (University of Nebraska Press, 1989), and the following winter I read it straight through.
The book was the work of Arthur C. Parker. By profession an anthropologist, Parker specialized in Iroquois studies, and from 1925 until his retirement in 1946 he headed what is today the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Of Seneca descent, he had grown up on the Cattaraugus Reservation-where he had experienced the traditional Iroquois stories in much the same was that I had experienced Grandma's stories.
But the author's background wasn't the only thing that shaped my expectations for the book. Another was a new translation of The Arabian Nights by Hussain Haddawy (W. W. Norton, 1930), which I had read the previous winter.
Initially I hoped to learn how Scheherazade (or "Shahrazad" in the new translation) had succeeded in postponing her own execution through skillful storytelling. As I immersed myself in the book, however, what impressed me was its geographical extent. Baghdad, I had expected. But other sites stretched from Egypt all the way to Central Asia, thereby creating a vast landscape of stories.
I began Parker's book looking for something similar, and—in a sense—I wasn't disappointed. The stories revealed the territory that was known to the Senecas: east to the ocean, west to the plains, and south to the homeland of the Cherokees. I also came across references to generic features of the natural landscape-lakes and rivers, trees and plants, animals of various sorts, etc. But the stories rarely mentioned specific sites in New York. Unlike the Arabian Nights, there were few place names for me to try locating on current maps.
Meanwhile, during mid-1992 I bought a house in Rochester and moved out of the apartment where I had lived for the previous ten years. To help me with that work, Terry came up from Knoxville for an extended visit, and as breaks we took day trips, exploring the area together.
One afternoon we hiked a portion of the Finger Lakes Trail near Hornell. Driving along Turnpike Road, we climbed out of the Canisteo Valley and within a few minutes located the parking spot described in our guidebook. Across the gravel road lay a field with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. For a mile or so we walked along the ridge-crest road, and then we turned right, onto a side road that dropped precipitously. When the fall of the land slowed down enough for fields to begin again, we turned right-this time, onto a shaded tractor path.
What had brought us to this section of the Finger Lakes Trail was the prospect of finding fossils. As the trail left the edge of the field to follow a small stream down the hillside, we examined the rocks that lined the streambed:
On another afternoon Terry and I drove to Penn Yan to hike a portion of the Outlet Trail—so named, because it follows the stream linking Keuka Lake to Seneca lake. This time there were no ups and downs, because the trail lay along the bed of an old railroad.
Once out of town, we saw traces of earlier development in the woods through which we walked. To our left was the shallow trough of an old canal, and to our right-between the trail and the stream-were occasional signs marking the locations of old factories. At Milo Mill we even came across industrial ruins-not only deteriorating buildings but also an old steam engine.
As our turnaround point, we chose the falls at Seneca Mills. Just downstream from the old foundations was a path to the water's edge. Remembering our earlier search for fossils, we examined the rocks on the narrow bar. What we actually turned up, however, were various metal objects; screws, nails, washers, and wire-the detritus of an old industrial corridor.
These hikes reminded me of my earlier experiences in Mississippi, I would find Indian pottery pieces and arrowheads on my walks. Since childhood I had felt within me a strong urge to collect such things. But now mere collecting no longer sufficed; I also wanted explanations. In the case of the fossils, I wanted to know how the region had once been a shallow inland sea. In the case of the metal objects, I wanted to learn about the stream's early economic development.
In the case of the Indian artifacts, however, I wasn't sure what to do. Although I didn't know where to find them in New York, I could think of places to try. But even if I succeeded, what sort of stories (if any) would they tell?
An alternative was to proceed in the other direction, starting with the stories and then discovering how they were tied to the land. The problem here was that Parker's book hadn't suggested any storied places to visit.
In addition to their traditional myths and legends, of course, the Iroquois possessed a long history. Unlike the events of their folklore, the events of their history could be located on maps and visited on day trips—which suggested a different approach.
As a start Terry and I drove to Ganondagan State Historic Site just south of Victor. Ganondagan had been a major Seneca town until its destruction in 1687 by French troops led by the Marquis de Denonville, the governor of New France. Now it was a park, with a visitor center and a network of hiking trails.
We picniked on nearby Fort Hill, which had been the town's grain storage area. Along the southern horizon we could see several hills-including Bare Hill. That view gave me my first glimpse of traditional Seneca stories.
Although Parker had not included the legend in his book, I learned from other sources how the village on Bare Hill had once been threatened by a great serpent. Only a young boy and girl had escaped. Using a specially prepared bow and arrow, the boy succeeded in wounding the monstrous beast-which in its death throes, swept the hillside clear of trees.
On the same afternoon that Terry and I visited Ganondagan, we continued by driving to the top of Bare Hill. After parking by the gate at the end of the road, we explored the undeveloped state land and enjoyed the northward view up Canandaigua Lake.
Slowly our trips were helping me see the traditional Iroquois stories in a new way. Here and there we had come across features of the landscape that seemed largely unchanged from times before the arrival of the first white settlers. That got me to thinking: maybe the stories could be tied directly to the land, without the mediation of artifacts.
Instead of collecting pottery pieces and arrowheads, maybe it was enough to do what Terry and I were doing now—discovering for ourselves the view of the lake from Bare Hill, and the patches of black raspberries growing on the hilltop; the view of the horizon from Fort Hill, and the huge sugar maples growing on the hillside; and above us, in both places, the ever-changing sky.
© 1994, Thomas D. Cornell