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A Native Museum Reborn: Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois Becomes Skä-noñh Center

The moment of first contact between European explorers and the indigenous American peoples — mistakenly called “Indians” — must have been remarkable: two radically different cultures learning about each other and sizing each other up; it’s an improbable circumstance to contemplate in today’s interconnected global society. On the shores of Onondaga Lake in Liverpool, N.Y., just north of Syracuse, sits a museum designed to commemorate that first contact experience, the Skä•noñh Center, also known as Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois. In its 1990s heyday, this unique facility offered a glimpse into the lives of French Jesuits who, from 1656 to 1658, ran the nearby Sainte Marie mission to convert area natives. This museum also paid heed to the story of the Iroquois Indians (who call themselves “Haudenosaunee,” pronounced “Ho-day-no-shaw-nee,” meaning “People of the Longhouse”) through displays and presentations that sometimes incorporated members of the five Haudenosaunee nations. But due to financial struggles, Sainte Marie leased the facility to the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA), offering an opportunity to re-invent this piece of history as an educational tool with a different perspective. “The story that was being told was one that the county wasn’t interested in,” said Gregg Tripoli, OHA’s executive director since 2008, referring to the emphasis on the French Jesuits. The missionaries operated the parish for fewer than two years before leaving the area. But the Haudenosaunee, Mr. Tripoli says, have exerted long-lasting influence over Central New York and across the U.S. in multiple fields. Lacrosse, a game invented and revered by the Haudenosaunee, is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. The Haudenosaunee’s “three sisters” — corn, beans and squash — are staples of the American diet.  Benjamin Franklin and other American forefathers recognized the strength and unity of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s government, in which all five of the member nations have a representative voice. Many scholars see such influence in the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution. The five Haudenosaunee Nations — Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk — all have reservations scattered throughout upstate New York, southern Ontario and Quebec. The Onondaga Nation is located just south of Syracuse. “The story that had longer and stronger legs was the story of the Native American history of our area,” Mr. Tripoli clarified. “They are not misunderstood, but not understood. We want to educate non-Haudenosaunee people about Haudenosaunee people.”

History of a Museum

The first Sainte Marie was founded purely for evangelical purposes, had no military presence and was located several miles from the current site. The second iteration of the “French Fort,” built in 1933 as a Works Progress Administration project, included cannons poking through the palisade walls, misrepresenting history.

In the mid-1980s, a committee that included Haudenosaunee members met to refurbish the dilapidated facility. The resulting four-year, $2.3-million renovation culminated when the Sainte Marie mission and an adjacent two-story museum opened in 1991. Reenactors played Jesuit priests and Onondaga Indians, illustrating how the two peoples coexisted during the short time the mission existed.

Declining attendance and county budget cuts caused the facility to close down at the end of 2002. 18 months later, a group of volunteers coalesced to reopen the facility on a limited basis. But without Indian participation, Sainte Marie drifted drastically from its original purpose of educating people about the first interaction between Europeans and Native Americans. During that period, Sainte Marie featured annual celebrations of “Christmas Around the World” a holiday that traditional Indians do not celebrate. There was also a tribute to “Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum, who was a native of nearby Chittenango and, as established in editorials published in the Aberdeen, S.D. “Saturday Pioneer” in 1890 and 1891, an advocate of the genocide of American Indians. Fortunately, with management in the hands of the OHA, Sainte Marie now appears to be moving in the right direction.

“Peace and Wellness”

The museum’s name will change to the Skä-noñh Great Law of Peace Center. “Skä-noñh” (pronounced “ska-no”) is an Onondaga Indian word of greeting meaning “peace and wellness.” An opening date has not yet been determined, and the Center’s organizers are actively seeking community input (you can share your thoughts by completing the Skä·noñh Center Survey). There will be no reenactors. Instead, Mr. Tripoli, OHA’s executive director, said, a “high-tech, audio-visual experience with computerized touch-screens and compelling visual displays” will entertain and educate visitors. Further, Mr. Tripoli plans to expand the Skä-noñh Center’s reach into nearby Onondaga Lake Park, where recreational opportunities for hiking, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing and kayaking abound. Other plans include a restaurant, retail store, classrooms, educational programs for high school students and lacrosse camps. Most importantly, Mr. Tripoli hopes the center will encourage the study of issues important to both Indian and non-Indian peoples. These include the ongoing cleanup of Onondaga Lake, a body of water sacred to the Haudenosaunee that was until recently one of the most polluted lakes in the world. “What this facility provides is the Haudenosaunee perspective,” Mr. Tripoli said. “There currently is no other such facility. We hope it will spark discussion.”


Interested in contributing to the future of the Skä·noñh Center? They are seeking community input, and have created a brief survey. Share your input HERE.

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