In April, 2016 renowned author Louise Erdrich took the stage at Kleinhans as part of the Just Buffalo's Babel series and welcomed the audience to Native Land. She was not referring to the 9.5-acre parcel of land in the city of Buffalo that the Seneca Nation owns for their casino, but to the ground beneath our feet, the roads on which we drive, the land on which our houses sit, and the landscape from which our city arose - all originally owner-occupied by the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations. This history is common knowledge to any fourth grade student.
In that same month of April, I wove last year’s ornamental grass into a small wigwam to help with my son’s social studies assignment. The project was the culmination of the history lesson, as if there were nothing more to tell. What if we stopped teaching European history at powdered wigs and wooden teeth? As our family constructed our 17th century Iroquois diorama, we discussed the nearly 300 years of Native American struggle to resist assimilation or annihilation. And, I pointed out our family’s regular interaction with the Seneca Nation.
Weekly, I drive through the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. My father lives in Perrysburg, and for close to 30 years I have visited at least once year (when I lived away) and now much more often as a resident of Buffalo.
In the 1980s, my Nana and Papa and I would drive from Buffalo to visit my dad. Along the way we would stop for cheap gas and cigarettes. Gas and cigarettes are cheaper on the reservation because, as a sovereign nation, the Seneca do not collect New York State taxes. That lower price makes it worth the drive.
Papa had quit smoking years before, but I hadn’t, so we exited off I-90 to drive through "the rez." I stuffed as many cartons as I could afford into my suitcase for my flight back home. On the road, Papa and I would do flawed math: I can’t really do math in my head; and he had a bad habit of fudging the numbers to make his point. Neither of us could accurately say if the detour for a better price on the cigarettes was less expensive than the gas we burned getting there. Nana, who owned a successful tailor shop, rolled her eyes at the sheer magic involved in our math skills and transactions.
Over the years, the gas and cigarette revenues have helped the Seneca’s once failing economy. Where there was once broken down mobile homes and trailers dotting the landscape, now there are more permanent structures and residential areas. There is running water and indoor plumbing. This was a mere 30 years ago.
Since the Seneca Gaming Corporation built and began operating three casinos: Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, Seneca Allegany Casino, and the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation public buildings are new and state of the art, including a community center, a medical facility, and a firehouse.
I appreciate the irony: Native American’s cultural devastation began when alcohol and diseases like smallpox were introduced by Anglos; now, the Seneca Nation utilizes the white man’s dependence on gambling, fossil fuels and cigarette smoking to reclaim their economic footing. Although the Seneca population is small - 8,000 enrolled members, the Seneca Nation has become the fifth largest public employer in WNY.
Papa has long since passed; I quit smoking; I don’t gamble; I still have no idea if there is a cost-benefit to traveling through the reservation for cheaper gas. Still, I do not use the I-90 to bypass the Reservation. I have become a Cattaragus Indian Rez convenience store consumer.
Gertrude Stein once wrote “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” which is to say, no matter how many derivations, a thing is what it is. This could be said about convenience stores. A convenience store sells chips, pop, smokes, beer, toiletries, milk, bread and gas, whether you are on the rez or not. But like a rose, I appreciate the subtle difference in each variation.
Clear Creek is where I regularly stop. They offer free popcorn, which the kids appreciate on the long drive back from Grandpa’s house. Some of the stores specialize in native-made crafts, whereas others have a nice selection of specialty cigars. The tribally owned and operated Seneca One Stop is a full service truck stop with showers, a Tuesday Farm's Market, and you can obtain a licence to fish on Seneca Nation territory including portions of Cattaraugus Creek and the Allegheny River. My husband, who works on a truck all day, likes to break-up a convenience store slump by stopping at the place where they sell an eclectic mix of warrior garb, including a knight’s helmet, viking sword, and ninja stars.
My grandmother enjoyed the luxury of having an attendant pump her gas and many of stations on the reservation do. On the other hand, I like to get out of my car and look around. The billboard across the street from Wolf Run caught my eye: Two Row Wampum Belt, “You Stay in Your Canoe. We’ll stay in Ours.” Maybe a fourth grader knows what that means, but I had to look it up.
The Two Row Wampum belt is the symbolic record of the first agreement between Europeans and American Indian Nations on Turtle Island/North America … The agreement outlines a mutual, three-part commitment to friendship, peace between peoples, and living in parallel forever (as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west). (Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign)
At Trinity Buffalo last January, I watched a teleconference called Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice. One of the speakers, Janine Tinsley-Roe, a member of the Shinnecock and Unkechaug Tribes, recommended a way to preserve heritage: add the meaning of everyday Native names to our city signs.
In South Buffalo, many of the main street names have been replaced with their Gaelic derivation. This is a way to show the area’s heritage. Ms. Tinsley-Roe suggested we do something similar with our lovely Native American place names.
- Seneca - Keeper of the Western Door
- Onondaga - The Keepers of the Central Fire
- Tonawanda - Land by the Waters
- Gowanda - Beautiful Valley Among the Hills
- Chippewa (an anglicized version of Ojiibwe) - Puckered
- Roanoke - Shell Money
- Cattaraugus - Foul-Smelling River Bank which denotes the natural gas leaking from the river rocks
- “The word Erie means "cat" as well as "long tail", and the Erie were referred to as the Cat Nation” (The Erie Indians)
- Ohio - It is beautiful
Imagine these names with their poetic meanings woven into the landscape. These markers would speak to the bounty of where we stand and the people who first experienced its wonder. Perhaps, we might slow down, pause, and reflect on the breadth of our common history. As Louise Erdrich declared, “Welcome to Native Land”.