February 25, 2011

Iroquois Indian Museum

The name "Haudenosaunee" translates into English as "People of the Longhouse," though they are more commonly known as the Iroquois. The territory of these people ranged from the Schoharie Creek to the Genesee River with a confederacy comprised of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora Nations. In Haudenosaunee tradition, the longhouse is a sacred dwelling where the people would gather for events such as spiritual ceremonies, meetings, and social dances as expressions of celebration. It is only fitting that the Iroquois Indian Museum in upstate New York is built to resemble a great longhouse of elm bark as might have been found in the area 400 years ago. The museum has an extensive display of contemporary Iroquois arts and crafts as well as archeological exhibits.

Much of Iroquois history is relayed through their elaborate storytelling. To be an engaging orator is seen to be a great skill. As many of the exhibits at the museum explain, these stories are told "to teach, to improve behavior, to explain phenomena, and for pure enjoyment." Oration is the basis of Iroquois identity. At the foot of the museum's central staircase, one can find a turtle pool that tells the Iroquois tale of Creation. It goes as such:

The Chief of the Sky World, at the request of his pregnant wife, uproots the celestial tree in Sky World. Some say this is the shad bush tree, the first tree to flower in upstate New York. As she bends over she slips or perhaps her husband gives her a little push. Geese from the watery world below fly up to catch her as she descends to the water. The turtle agrees to be her support. Muskrat dives to the bottom of the ocean to bring up mud that will grow to be Turtle Island. Sky Woman gives birth to a daughter, who becomes our Mother the Earth. From her grows corn, beans, and squash -- Our Three Sisters. Sky Woman returns to the heavens and becomes Our Grandmother, Moon. 

While the story of Sky Woman has nothing to do with the biblical account of Creation that I believe in, I put great value on cultural differences and I find other spiritual precepts to be fascinating nonetheless. Another wonderful Iroquois story explains the appearance of cornhusk dolls. It reminds me of the Greek tale of Narcissus and goes like this:

There was a time when all cornhusk dolls had faces. They were sent by the Creator to be a playmate of the children. The very first cornhusk doll made was told by the Creator that she was to protect the children and keep them from harm. One day when they were in the woods, the cornhusk doll discovered a pond. Looking into the pond she saw her own reflection. She knelt down and began to admire herself. She stayed there for a very long time and forgot about the children. Soon, the children were in danger and the cornhusk doll was nowhere to be found. She was still at the pool looking at her reflection. The Creator saw her and told her, "You were given a job to protect the children and you forgot your instructions!" As punishment he took away her face and said, "From now on, cornhusk dolls will have no face!" 

One more story that sticks in my mind explains the existence of so many stones in the upstate New York region. Here it is:

Traditional enemies of the Iroquois, the Stone Giants were cannibals much feared. They lived in upstate New York before the Iroquois and they resisted being replaced. Like giants everywhere, however, they were eventually outwitted. When they died, their bodies became stones. That is why there are so many stones all around us. The mute stones are reminders that they once thrived.

Overall, the Iroquois Indian Museum paints a detailed picture of some of New York State's cultural legacy and offers a step into the world of the "People of the Longhouse." I definitely recommend paying it a visit if you're ever in the Cobleskill area. Cheers!!!

"The Lord your God is with you
wherever you go."

~Joshua 1:9