Written by Roger Chambers | Utica Phoenix Columnist
The 39th annual Iroquois Festival was held on Labor Day weekend at the Iroquois Museuem in Howes Cave, Schoharie County, after being canceled for two years due to Covid-19. The museum has one of the largest collections of Iroquois artifacts in the world. These include clothing, baskets, pipes, weapons and other items used in daily life. Inside the main building, built to represent a traditional longhouse (home to several families), there are many art works by the Iroquois, including paintings, photographs, jewelry, and sculptures of stone, wood and deer and moose antlers.
There are also displays on how the Indian has been used, now largely recognized as derogatory, in advertising, sports teams, and other information on how the Iroquois were exploited and repressed in speaking their own languages. In many cases, in Indian Schools of late 19th to mid 20th century they nearly completely lost their language and cultural life and religion. This included the use of wood for furniture, baskets and weapons, and animal skins and for clothing. Many of these cultural aspects of the Iroquois have miraculously survived and increased over recent decades and continue through many modern Iroquois artists.
Several vendors had jewelry, bead work, paintings and sculpture for sale There were also two food vendors providing Iroquois foods and beverages. The museum grounds also have a few miles of hiking trails in the forest, with various signs identifying local trees and other plants, birds and mammals of the area. Trails are open year-round in daylight hours. The museum itself is open Tuesdays to Sundays May 1 to October 31, more limited hours in April and November, and closed December-March.
Perry Ground, an Onondaga storyteller, was the emcee for the event. He told various stories of Iroquois heritage in a very animated manner. This included a brief version of the Iroquois creation story.
Sky Woman was up in the sky, when a hole developed in the sky, which she fell through to the vast waters below. Her fall was slowed down on the backs of various birds, eventually landing on the back of a large snapping turtle. However, there was no earth. The muskrat dove into the depths, coming up with some dirt which was placed on the back of the turtle, forming the Earth. This was known as “Turtle Island” or what we call North America.
Plants sprung up, including the maple and pine tree, and the strawberry. As an edible berry in the spring, it is the first berry and strawberry festivals are an important aspect of traditional culture. On turtle island, Sky Woman had a female child, and her child had two male children. Differently from the Biblical creation story, women were first, then men came. The Iroquois tribes (from west to east, the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, with the later addition of the Tuscarora) are a matriarchal society. The lineage is traced through one’s mother clan and tribe, and women played a leadership role in political and social decisions.
In addition to these stories by Perry Ground, the large roof covered pavilion was home to other programs throughout the day. There were demonstrations of early technologies such as stone carving, wampum, weapons, clothing and jewelry. There were also traditional social and celebratory dancing by the Sky Dancers, a troupe of dancers in native dress from the Six Nations Reserve on the Grand River in Southern Ontario. There were several children friendly activities in several locations in the museum and outside on the grounds and this event was very family friendly for the nearly 500 people in attendance on the first day of the two day event.
This is an annual event held on Labor Day Weekend (Saturday and Sunday). There is American Indian Day (or Indigenous Peoples Day) variously noted in different states on different dates, often the 4th Friday of September, and increasingly, coinciding with Columbus Day on the second Monday in October. (The controversy over which culture to celebrate in October is quite controversial, but perhaps a topic to be discussed some other time). It is very interesting and important to realize that the various tribes of the Iroquois survive and still play an important role in the varied cultural life of Central New York.