I am a Seneca Indian and my people have traditionally inhabited this region. Although we have traditionally been more centered around Cuba Lake region, where we recieved the the name, “People of the Great Hill” or O-non-dowa-gah, (pronounced, “O non da wat ga”), where legends tell us we were kept hostage on that hill by a giant man-eating two headed serpant, we have also encompassed most of Western New York, and as far as Ohio through conquest. It is very satisfying to know that my ancestors have walked where I walk, and nearly all of our modern major roadways are built on top of our old trails.
Even though this area of Western New York and southward into Pennsylvania were once inhabited by the Erie or Neutral tribes, we effectively wiped out their warriors and integrated the women and children into our own tribe, so arguably where I live today on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation is also part of my ancestor’s traditional grounds. Although I imagine what life was like for those that made my existance possible, it had rarely occured to me that what I see today is not what it was like, and perhaps even substantially different.
Sometimes the elders have told us that traditional medicine is dying, and not merely beacuse of the intricate knowledge and dedication it takes to learn the different plants and techniques, but because the plants themselves are wiped from existance. They have also said when they flooded our land in Allegeny for the Kinzua Dam, many plants that grew along the banks were wiped out, so that we have lost much more than our land and homes that were there. Still I thought since it was the same area, it would have looked much the same, until I heard an interview on NPR of Charles Mann, the author of 1493:Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.
Charles Mann’s thesis is how the two cultures interacted with each other to produce changes in ecology of the Americas. He said prior to the arrival of the colonists, there were no worms in the Northeastern Woodlands, as the glacier had wiped them out in the Ice Age. When European worms were intoduced they ate the leaf liter in decidous forests which helped decimate the conditions needed for the sugar maple and allowed for more conifers. However worms were only brought incidentally on ships, the colonists purposely brought European bees. The bees affected the ecology in ways that are fully known yet, but their swarms often came before the arrival of the colonists, and the Indians associated the bees with the coming of the white man. The bees would have had tastes for European plants the bees were already accustomed to and actively established and promoted European plants over traditional American plants.
Reading Seneca and Iroquois ( Haudenosaunee) history and legends I know that the sugar maple provided an important part of a traditional diet. Our people would make a snack to take on journeys consisting of dried pounded corn and maple syrup, kind of like an energy bar, and perhaps some jerky if the journey or hunting excursion would be longer. Although our diet was primarily the crops named the three sisters; corn, beans and squash (which also provide a complete protein if eaten together by the way); game, fish, birds, wild strawberries, wild onions, and nuts rounded out our diet. Many stories relate a chesnut pudding that was made from grated chestnut, which sounds delicious. Birch bark was used for our canoes and sometimes for our longhouses. Elm bark was primarily used for longhouses, because the bark is waterproof and very hard when it becomes dried.
Sadly, after I listened to this interview I really realized that many of our traditional necessities are very limited and could not support an entire nation or nations in this area anymore. The sugar maple, birch and elm only exist in limited quantities. And while some animals and plants, such as the tasty springtime wild onion, are still plentiful, I have only seen the tiny elusive wild strawberry once. My people have a whole ceremony dedicated to that strawberry and it is noted that springtime is met with relish for this gift from the creator. This does not even account for all the plants used for medicine that have been extinguished. While you may have thought of the consequences of destroying the rainforest on eradicating a miracle cure, have you ever thought many such cures have already become eradicated with the change in ecology in your own back yard? Even though I do live in the same area as my ancestors, I cannot think that just because I see trees, plants, and animals outside, they are the same or even similar as what did exist. Moreover with the poles shifting and global warming, maybe my own grandchildren or great-grandchildren will come to the same conclusion when they think of the world as I see it now.