The earliest indigenous inhabitants of New York State never rode on horseback and used stone tools and weapons as well as fire in their everyday lives. These early Native Americans created and maintained a rich cultural existence in the northeast woodlands region for at least 12,000 years prior to the arrival of Europeans. A number of tribes inhabited this area, including the Mohawk, Seneca and Iroquois Nations. Many historical institutions and museums strive to tell their story today. While much of the human drama of these individuals has been lost to time, here are some destinations in New York State where their saga is shared and can be experienced.
National Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine
The Tekakwitha Shrine and Museum is dedicated to the life of a 17th century Mohawk woman, currently poised to become the first Native American Christian Saint. Known as The Lily of the Mohawks, Kateri Tekakwitha lost her family, and much of her vision, to smallpox when she was only four years old. Badly scarred and raised first by an uncle and then by a foster family, Kateri decided to devote her life to God and secretly began instruction in Catholicism as a young woman. Her shrine is housed in a converted Dutch barn, also home to a collection of Native American artifacts from multiple tribes. A miniature replica of the Mohawk village Caughnawagha is also on display, as it existed 300 years ago. The fully excavated, original Caughnawagha site is in walking distance of the Shrine and Museum.
Iroquois Indian Museum
Howes Cave, N.Y.
Shaped like the traditional longhouses built by the Native Americans of this region 400 years ago, the Iroquois Indian Museum is committed to telling the story of Iroquois culture by using art as a medium. History, archaeology and the talents of modern artists and craftspeople combine to forge together a unique, anthropological journey, told on canvas and also through performance art. The Museum is situated within a 45-acre nature park, where the Iroquois way of life and attitude toward Mother Earth is celebrated. The Park is home to two 19th century log homes, originally constructed in Ontario and rebuilt in their present location by a Mohawk construction company.
Ganondagan State Historic Site
This historic site just southeast of Rochester celebrates the Seneca people and their democratic, matriarchal culture, which partly inspired both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, signed at the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. Including miles of self-guided nature trails, the Ganondagan State Historic Site also houses a full-sized replica of a Seneca Bark Longhouse from the 17th century and a climbable mesa where thousands of bushels of various types of grain were stored. The story of the destruction of the Ganondagan Town of Peace in 1687 is told through slideshows, art and artifacts.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.