AHA! A House for Arts

S7 E12 | FULL EPISODE

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Who is considered Haudenosaunee/Iroquois? Who gets to decide who belongs and who does not? These questions are at the heart of an exhibition called Identity/Identify at the Iroquois Indian Museum. Learn about the living heritage of Schenectady with Schenectady County Historical Society Director, Mary Zawacki. Athena Burke performs with her producer Devon Seegers at WMHT Studios.

AIRED: October 13, 2021 | 0:28:45
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TRANSCRIPT

- [Laura] Art illuminates the complexity of identity

at the Iroquois Indian Museum,

Mary Zawacki explores the history of Schenectady county,

and catch a performance from Athena Burke.

It's all ahead on this episode of AHA, A House for Arts.

- [Narrator] Funding For AHA

has been provided by your contribution

and by contributions to the WMHT venture fund.

Contributors include The Leo Cox Beach

Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka,

Robert and Doris Fischer Malisardi,

The Alexander & Marjorie Hover Foundation,

and The Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank,

we understand that the vitality of our communities

is crucial to our continued success.

That is why we take an active role in our community

M&T is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.

- Hi, I'm Laura Ayad, and this is AHA.

A House for Arts, a place for all things creative.

Here's Matt Rakowitz with today's field segment.

- I'm here at the Iroquois Indian museum

in Howes Cave, New York

to speak with their director and curator

and learn more about their exhibit 'Identity Identify'.

(Native American song)

- Our mission is to try to teach our visitors about

who the Iroquois people are today.

Iroquois are still here.

They're a very vibrant culture,

they're a very enduring culture,

and their traditions have maintained

through all these thousands of years.

The building is designed

to look like a traditional Iroquois longhouse.

So it's very long and it's high.

And it evokes the feeling of the bark longhouses

that Iriquois lived in in the past.

Well, I will say Iroquois,

actually, the proper term for the,

for the group that were the original New York peoples

is the Haudenosaunee.

And that is the name that they prefer to be called by.

It means 'people of the longhouse'

and, but we often learn in school

and we hear Iroquois a lot.

And that was a name that was given to the group

by the French and the Algonquins,

which is not a very complimentary name,

but it's one that most of us recognize.

So I will maybe go back and forth in terms of Iroquois

and Haudenosaunee.

But they were the original inhabitants of New York state.

Their ancestors trace back to 10,000 years ago.

So they've been here a long, long time.

And if you speak to many Iroquois people,

they believe that they came from New York state.

And so their creation story is that they began here.

- This is Identity Identify.

And the idea behind this exhibition was to look at who is,

Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois,

who is not considered Haudenosaunee.

And who gets to decide?

Those things impact an individual's day-to-day life.

Everything from where you live, to your job opportunities

to participation in ceremonies and your national identity.

- The Iroquois are a matrilineal society.

So they go by your mother.

So if your mother is non-native and your father is native,

you often are not considered native.

- This idea of who is Haudenosaunee is really complex.

The Canadian government passed

something called the Indian Act in 1876.

They took what was the matrilineal system with,

through the women's lines,

and imposed a European system on it,

which was that they recognized,

Canada recognized the men in native communities

and heritage being passed through men's lines,

which totally disrupted the traditional system.

If a Mohawk man married a non-native.

According to that Canadian system,

his new wife, who is non-native, became Mohawk

by having married a Mohawk man.

Mohawk women, on the other hand,

who have always carried the lineage,

when they married a non-native,

they had to leave the reservation

and they were then stripped of their Mohawk ethnicity.

So they were no longer on the tribal roles.

Their children, consequently were not Mohawks.

And so this entire system became totally disrupted.

A hundred years later, it was changed

because it was seen as gender-biased.

And many of these Mohawk women wanted to return

to their communities,

but there's a lot of resistance to that

within the communities,

because these are individuals who have been

apart from their communities for a long time.

Their children don't know the traditional ways,

the people in the communities don't really recognize them.

So you have that happening.

The American government decided to have, in 1934,

I believe it is,

impose something called blood quantum.

And it sounds very scientific.

And basically blood quantum

gave the United States government

said we'll decide who's native and who's not.

And they based it on a system that went back to

tracing lineage, ethnicity through individuals position,

to an ancestor who was on the tribal roles.

- So it was all those issues looking at how the artists

reflect those kinds of issues and what they're creating.

And what they're saying about that.

- The issue of enrollment in blood quantum

is a good conversation.

One that is taking place more and more

within our native communities.

And

I felt as a,

an enrolled person,

I felt it was necessary to sort of

speak out on behalf of the descendants, you know,

because oftentimes they don't get the same benefits

as us enrolled members.

- Hayden Haynes is a very accomplished antler carver,

and he is from Cattaraugus Reservation,

which is a Seneca reservation in Western New York.

Basically these two elements represent two groups of people

within his community.

Those who are enrolled, represented by the fat cat,

he calls that element 'the dependence',

and those who are unenrolled who are 'the descendants'.

And so he's chosen to portray the unenrolled folks

in his community,

as those who are constantly scavenging for whatever is left

and getting the bits and pieces that are left behind

versus the dependence, which are the enrolled Seneca's,

who have-

and his, according to Hayden,

they've had so much handed to them

that they've simply become entitled and expectant

and lazy as a result of it.

- You know, there's a lot of times

when our descendant brothers and sisters will get sort of

shunned in a ways when it comes to certain things, you know,

by our own people, by saying,

"Well, they're not enrolled, so they don't have the right

to say this," or

"They're not enrolled, so we're not including them in this.'

And, you know, we should be open-minded to

what we can do for our descendant sisters and brothers.

- We're talking about the Iriquois,

but there are many, many other cultures who this-

a similar thing occurs.

And so one of the things that we have in the exhibit

is a blackboard where people can write

how do you feel like you are accepted?

And the responses we're getting are great.

So it's not just one targeted audience.

It's how do people feel about how do they identify

in various ways?

- Mary Zawacki is the executive director

of the Schenectady County Historical Society.

The society operates three historic sites

and hosts a number of programs designed to showcase

the sometimes surprising cultural history

of Schenectady county.

What can Mary reveal about the living heritage

of Schenectady?

I sat down with her to find out.

Mary, welcome to A House for Arts.

It's so nice to have you.

- It's a pleasure to be here.

Thank you so much for having me.

- So you've been heading the

Schenectady County Historical Society for four years now,

which is amazing.

- Yeah. I can't believe it's been four years. Yes.

- So tell us about what the SCHS sets out to do.

- Yes, so our mission is, I would, say educational,

but we really want to reach everyone in our community

and beyond

with a little bit of Schenectady history

and the culture of that as well.

- And what do you think is the society's

most striking feature?

Because I understand there are historical societies located,

not just in other parts of New York,

but all over the United States.

What do you think sets the SCHS apart?

- We have very talented staff and volunteers who are good

at taking things outside of our museums

and bringing them kind of into the streets

and even into the river, in some cases,

- The Mohawk River

- The Mohawk river, exactly.

And kind of turning the whole community, the whole city,

the whole county into a sort of living museum.

- This is really compelling is,

what's a good example of how you see the whole county

really has a living museum?

- Just the most recently, I guess, would be over the summer

We did a lot of kayak paddles on the Mohawk,

which is a different way to kind of experience the history

of the region.

But even a couple of years ago,

we had a really great program where we brought people out

onto a few farms located in rural parts

of Schenectady County to kind of tie in

the agricultural history of our region

with contemporary farmers and what they're doing.

So people could experience a little bit of both.

- I want to come back to historic sites

and historic farms in particular in just a minute,

but this is really interesting,

because I know you've been a curator

at the SCHS since 2014. Right?

- Yes

- So you have all this incredible knowledge about

the collections, the sites.

Do you have any favorite objects that's held at the society?

- Absolutely.

I am a huge nerd when it comes to old furniture,

but specifically furniture that's kind of more folky,

not fancy furniture,

just things that were made locally and used locally

and somehow heavily stood the test of time

and we're able to still have them in our collection.

- How old are some of these pieces?

- Oh gosh, we have furniture from the early 1700's.

- Oh, wow.

- Easily. Yes.

- Yeah, so this is,

I mean, it's kind of like the dates that one would associate

with like the first settlements of, you know,

people of European descent in this region.

- Absolutely. - That's pretty incredible.

Kind of curious,

What do you think that audiences would learn

about Schenectady's history that you think

that they would find surprising in some way or another?

- Oh gosh, that's a great question.

One of my favorite kind of anecdotes is

the Historic Center of Schenectady

is the Stockade neighborhood, which is still there today.

But what people don't know is

when that original neighborhood was,

had a stockade wall around it,

there were actually longhouses inside walls that,

that people from the Mohawk tribe were living in.

- Right.

Because isn't that a very distinctive part of like Mohawk

architecture and even part of the wider Iroquois nation

- Yes.

- Is these longhouses, right?

- And I don't think people really think, you know,

next to kind of colonial style dwellings,

that there would be a longhouse right there,

but we have early maps and drawings that indicate that

that was, in fact, the case.

So I think that that speaks to the ethos of Schenectady

at that time.

Definitely a more, perhaps, open society,

more accepting than other regions.

- So what inspired you to get so interested

in showcasing Schenectady County's history to the public?

- I think it's stories like that. Just how,

just so many stories of people working together.

Also it hits so many key notes in American history.

I mean, you have some of everything here.

You have this very early frontier, colonial trade period.

You have,

the industrial revolution was huge in Schenectady.

There's no shortage of stories to kind of dive into,

which makes it really easy

to get people excited about history.

No matter what they're interested in,

I can kind of find an angle.

- Right.

And you're from further downstate, is that correct?

- Yes, I am. I'm From Westchester County, originally.

- Yeah. But close enough, right,

to see the kind of play out of these different phases

and stages in New York's wider history, for sure.

- I think definitely Eastern New York shares a lot of,

a lot of the same history, for sure.

- So, let's come back to these historic sites

that the society oversees.

There's like a historic house. Is that right?

As well as what are the two other sites that you have?

- We have a historic farmhouse.

And then in the city, we have the oldest house in the city,

which is an artist studio right now.

And we also operate a museum in library

just down the street from that.

- That's really cool.

I want to sit for a minute with the farm,

and this is the Maybee farm.

- Maybee farm, right.

- So, this is a really interesting site because

in the US recently,

I think the idea of the American farmers

become really sexy.

So you see all these restaurants that are advertising

farm to table,

and people are drinking their chia seeds

out of repurposed Mason jars and they call

themselves farmers, no offense.

No offense to anybody who likes chia seeds

or re-purposing Mason jars. There's nothing wrong with that.

But let's be honest, too, Mary.

Maybe you can give some perspective on this.

Do you think that something like the Maybee farm

reflects this contemporary idea we have

of like rural life in America and farms?

- Oh, that is such a good question.

I think,

I think it reflects it in the sense that people

love to host weddings there.

And it's a great place for Mason jars and chia seeds

and farm to table food.

But I think really what we're more interested in doing is

reflecting agricultural life from two or even 300 years ago,

which I think is.

- Right, because this is the oldest farm

in the Mohawk Valley?

- In the Mohawk Valley, yes, 1705.

- Wow.

- And I think it's almost impossible

to truly imagine yourself on a farm in that time period.

Considering again, it was the frontier, pretty much

everything west of there was,

was a wilderness and had all kinds of scary animals

and just something as simple as getting tea or butter

would have been a multi-day excursion.

- Right. So it's like the things we take for granted,

even as basic needs, were luxuries for people who lived

on the Maybee farm that many hundreds of years ago.

- I think just about everything was a luxury for them, yes.

- Wow. That's pretty incredible.

I'm kind of curious to know a little more about

some of the other historic sites, not just the Maybee farm,

but also this historic house.

Tell us a little bit about that too.

Like what does a vignette or a day in the life look like

in a home like that?

- The house was donated to us a couple of years ago

and we were a little bit, I think, terrified of it

because opening a new historic-

- Is it because it's haunted?

(laughing)

- Well,

I think that it is.

But that's just my opinion.

Opening a historic house museum is not always,

it's not the most popular idea,

but we were lucky that we had some local artists who were

who were interested in using the bedrooms

and some of the other spaces in there to,

to do their art.

And I've been really pleased to see in the past year that

we have five artists that are in there full-time.

One has even opened up a shop on the ground floor.

So a day in the life of the oldest house in Schenectady is,

is the story of five different artists creating and,

and making work, you know.

- Right. So, this is something about heritage,

both living in the past as well as today.

- Right.

- Which then brings us to my next question for you, Mary,

which is, you know,

I've heard of the term heritage tourism before.

- Right.

And I'm curious to know, what kind of role do you see

the SCHS playing in tourism today in the US

and particularly heritage tours?

- Heritage tourism is fantastic. I think it's great.

I would love to see Schenectady do even more of that.

And I think,

I hope that the historical society

is playing a little bit of a role in attracting people

because we do have things,

not just like museums or historic houses,

but we will do the farm to the farm to table dinners,

and we do have, you know, the hands-on things

that I think are really a big part of heritage tourism,

because it's the stories and the cultures

and sort of the activities of the past,

but how do you make that fun and engaging in the present

so that people want to come and visit?

- What do you think people are looking for

when they come to visit for things like this?

- I think,

and I say this as a heritage tourist myself, it's,

it's a really fun way to spend the day with,

with loved ones,

with family, with friends, to kind of just

forget about everything that we have in modern life, and,

and focus on a place that has really interesting

characteristics,

the architecture, the food, the people,

the stories, all of that.

And I think Schenectady does have all of that. I really do.

- Right, right.

So you've told us a little bit about some of the things that

the county, the society is doing presently

or just in the recent past.

I know you've done some paddling tourism

on the Mohawk River.

What are some events and programs that you have coming up?

Maybe give us a bit of a sampler of that.

- Sure, so I mean

this is always the season that I love to invite people

into our spaces,

because the fall and then the winter are just

so filled with like seasonal foods and decorations

and things like that.

So throughout the month of October,

we have candlelight tours,

which is a little bit of history

and a little bit of, you know, maybe being scared.

And it's a lot of walking around the stockade

in the evening, which is, I think the best time to see it,

all of the windows are lit up

and people have their decor out.

- So that this goes back to the hauntings

you were referring to earlier.

Have you seen any of these ghosts yourself?

- I would say it's more of a feeling than a sight thing.

- Okay. That's legit.

- I think so.

So people should come in and explore for themselves

and see if they,

if they feel a little bit of the hauntings.

- That's really cool. Now, is this,

do you also have a tour too

that also deals with some of Schenectady's

more scandalous histories?

- We do that, too, yes, we do that.

- Tell us a little about that.

- I think

there's, I mean, there's no shortage of stories of,

let's say taverns and brothels

and people getting into fights

and people not acting, perhaps, as well as they could.

And, you know, we like to tell those stories,

maybe mix it up with a stop at a local pub,

something like that.

- Right. But that's history for you too, though, right?

That people don't always do the most virtuous thing.

It's just as much a part of history.

- Absolutely.

In fact, maybe it's the more kind of fun and interesting

part of history.

- Well, these programs and events sound really interesting

and really intriguing as well.

Maybe we'll all get a little bit spooked too, along the way.

Well, Mary, it was such a pleasure having you

on A House for Arts. Thank you for coming in.

- Oh my pleasure. Thank you so much.

- Please welcome, Athena Burke.

- Hi, I'm Athena Burke

and this is Devin Segers

and we are so glad to be here.

We're going to play some songs from my upcoming album

that Devin produced.

And the first song we're going to do is called

'I Will Not Fall'.

And it's the first single off the album,

and it's a power anthem

to remind you that you're stronger than you think.

(instrumentals)

(singing)

- So, this next song is called 'The Long Road',

and it's a song I wrote about my childhood trauma

and reconnecting with a higher power through healing.

And, the song tells you,

it was something that was always there,

but I'd lost touch with.

And I feel like with so many people really becoming aware

of healing their trauma,

that this song speaks to us all.

(instrumentals)

(singing)

- Thanks for joining us.

For more arts, visit wmht.org/aha

and be sure to connect with WMHT on social.

I'm Laura Ayad.

Thanks for watching.

- [Narrator] Funding for AHA

has been provided by your contribution

and by contributions to the WMHT venture fund.

Contributors include The Leo Cox Beach

Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka,

Robert and Doris Fischer Malisardi,

The Alexander & Marjorie Hover Foundation,

and The Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank,

we understand that the vitality of our communities

is crucial to our continued success.

That is why we take an active role in our community.

M&T is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.

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