Western New York’s southern flank hosted two grand openings during the first four days of August. Although separated geographically by a mere thirty-three miles, they were worlds apart in many other ways.
August 1, 2018 marked the opening ceremony for the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, the small, economically-distressed city nestled in Chautauqua County about 70 miles and 85 minutes south of Buffalo. A star-studded celebration – including comedians Amy Schumer, Lily Tomlin, Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman – continued for another four days.
Just three days later, the grand opening of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum’s cultural center was celebrated in Salamanca, New York, a rural community in Cattaraugus County located within the Seneca Nation’s Allegany Reservation a similar distance from Buffalo.
The Comedy Center’s opening garnered widespread attention, not only from local reporters such as the Buffalo News’ Tim O’Shei and WBFO’s Jay Moran, but from publications as diverse as Forbes and USA Today, and even CBS news. It also was the subject of an Andrew Cuomo press release, where our oft-hyperbolic governor proclaimed: “The new National Comedy Center will serve as a tourist attraction and an economic game changer for Chautauqua County and the Western NY Region.” According to Cuomo, the center will welcome more than 114,000 visitors annually, and generate in excess of $23 million each year in local economic activity.
Perhaps it was Tim O’Shei’s July 28th reference to the Comedy Center’s “techie, glitzy and celebrity-backed” five-day festival, his mentioning of “a farting bench – the equivalent of an electronic whoopee cushion,” or, the quote from the center’s executive director, Journey Gunderson, that “it’s just about making sure the reviews are good.” But, I could not muster any interest in attending the Jamestown event.
In contrast, all it took was an early Saturday morning perusal of Anny Kim’s article, “Seneca Nation’s rich history finds a new home,” to motivate me to get my lazy backside moving – camera in tow – for the hour-and-a-quarter drive from South Buffalo to Salamanca. I hadn’t seen or heard anything about the August 4, 2018 grand opening of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum prior to that date. While the cantankerous Andrew Cuomo might let NY’s disputes with the Seneca Nation over casino revenues and the legality of the portion of the Thruway/I-90 that runs through Seneca lands nix the issuance of a press release, I recognized the promise of an important cultural event when I saw one.
I wasn’t disappointed.
There was nothing glitzy about the grand opening ceremony for the Seneca Nation’s new cultural center. The predominantly-Native American crowd in attendance didn’t need the lure of national celebrities to attract them to the white tent and folding chairs at 82 W. Hetzel Street, a site near the Nation’s Allegany administration building. It was a family reunion – individuals of all ages knew and embraced each other and the speakers and officials who walked across the stage.
The feeling of pride was palpable. And, there was one beloved and revered individual and family at the center of it all: the community’s late spiritual leader and bilingual specialist, Richard “Onohsagwe:de’” Johnny-John (1914 – 1992) – often called “Gwe:de’” – and the extended Johnny-John family.
It may be true that Jamestown’s Comedy Center was inspired by Lucille Ball – a Jamestown native who moved away and became a comedic legend. But, the new Seneca-Iroquois facility appears, at least to this Italian-American outsider, to be the living, breathing embodiment of the life of Onohsagwe:de (which means “opening in the house”). Johnny-John spent his entire life on the Allegany Territory, striving to preserve Seneca history and culture. And, as expressed by the Seneca Nation’s Archives Director, Rebecca Bowen, there is hope that the center – which bears Onohsagwe:de’s name – will reflect the character of a man who gave so generously of his time, knowledge and energy .
If I haven’t made it clear, I have not been to Jamestown to tour its newest attraction. So, admittedly, my sense that its existence in the Chautauqua County city is more a contrivance than a natural occurrence is a preliminary assessment. I’m open to having my mind changed.
But, the Seneca Nation’s cultural center feels genuine, a resource growing organically from the people and land around it. It was financed by the Seneca Nation, and, unlike the National Comedy Center, did not require the cobbling together of funds and tax credits from the federal government, Department of Commerce, private foundations, and the State of New York.
Before sharing images that I took during the grand opening ceremony and while touring a small portion of the cultural center [note: I was told as I entered the facility, with camera hanging from my neck, that taking photographs would only be allowed on opening day], here are a few impressions that I came away with:
** The over-arching goal of the Seneca Nation is to have the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum be “a living, breathing entity,” not a static museum.
** While the Seneca Nation welcomes outsiders to come and learn about its culture and history, the most important function of the cultural center will be to ensure that Native Americans gain a fuller understanding of their language, culture, history and traditions.
** There is a strong desire to “redefine” the Seneca Nation’s history with the U.S.A. so that it can be described – not in the words of non-Native Americans – but from the perspective of the Seneca people.
** The Seneca people have a remarkable love and respect “for those who walked here long before.” That reverence is manifested in many ways, including the moving “Thanksgiving Address” – known as the Gano:nok. [My apologies that I don’t have ready access to the symbols needed to accurately portray the Seneca language.]
Note: Out of respect for its spiritual nature, I did not take a photo of Hilton Johhny-John’s opening “thanksgiving address,” but here is a link to a video of the Ganö:nyök, and a booklet, from the Seneca Language Department.
SCENES FROM THE AUGUST 4, 2018 GRAND OPENING of the SENECA-IROQUOIS NATIONAL MUSEUM [SINM] in Salamanca, NY:
Master of Ceremony and SINM Bd. of Directors Chairman Rick Jemison:
Seneca Nation President Todd Gates:
Seneca Nation Treasurer Maurice John, Sr. [who spoke warmly, eloquently, and frankly]:
Member of Seneca Nation Tribal Council and Faithkeeper Steve Gordon (who spoke movingly and lovingly about Gwe:de’):
Some of the Tribal Council Members in attendance:
SINM Archives Director Rebecca Bowen:
SINM Museum Director [and, the extremely exhausted] David George-Shongo:
Members of the Johnny-John family helped to close the ceremony when they took to the stage and expressed their gratitude to all who made the cultural center a reality, and bestowed such an honor on Gwe:de’.
Ribbon Cutting (with members of the Johnny-John family front and center):
Puffy clouds graciously shielding the crowd from a rather intense sun:
A few scenes from inside the beautifully designed, informative, and inspirational SINM/Cultural Center:
Painting by Honored Artist Carson R. Waterman:
Beaded Moccasins, Cornhusk Dolls by Artist Debbie Doxtator:
Some of the things for which to be thankful [Illustrations by Bill Crouse]:
- Our Elder Brother Daytime
- Our Grandmother Nighttime
“And so let it be that way in our minds.”
ONONDOWA’GA – People of the Great Hill/Keepers of the Western Door:
With All Due Respect (and, Admiration),