People have asked me with surprising frequency, about the inspiration for these history posts.
I say surprising, because that frequency, 91.3 MHz, is usually reserved for public radio stations.
Maybe that has something to do living one block from the WITI Tower, which for a time, was the tallest radio/TV tower in the world. (On humid days, I’ll suddenly start receiving 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, crystal clear, on my toaster. When they’re playing soul, I don’t mind, the toast comes out great, golden-browned and tasty. But when it picks up heavy metal, everything gets charred, and when it’s streaming alternative art-rock bands, the bread stays pale, limp, and apathetic.)
And as for how inspiration strikes, well lately, inspiration has been on strike more than a French trade union.
Actually, no one has ever asked where these ideas came from, they just express a wish that they’d stayed there. Well, the process is simple – I just flip through old photos, and try to remember why I took them.
This photo, for example. I saw this bow & arrow oddity, at a little crossroads in the country, not far from Keuka Lake, surrounded by corn fields and pastures. I guessed, the highly inaccurate brave was originally an advertising emblem, or an old tin weathervane, that blew off a barn roof one night, and the thrifty local farmers repurposed it for this memorial. (Turns out, that might be exactly right. Or it may have been a decoration from an old steamboat.)
So one rainy day, I looked it up, and that’s what this post is about.
First off, what are we to call this bit of homely roadside whimsy?
There’s a substantial stone obelisk, but the tin Indian is two-dimensional, and it seems like, it doesn’t really qualify as a “statue.”
So let’s call it a “Folk Art Effigy,” or “Naïve Tribute to Indigenous Peoples.”
Yep, I’m just a self-appointed roving rural art critic. We, the editorial staff here at UpState & Away, are all about sounding pretentious, artsy, and serious-minded.
Like those little dots on naïve. How cool! My imaginary editor seizes upon any chance to use umlauts, diaeresis, dipththong, all that fancy-schmancy stuff.
(Doesn’t diaeresis sound like an unpleasant digestive disorder?)
(and dipththong?? an abbreviated swimsuit, for someone with a lisp?? I have no idea.)
According to the blue sign next to it, which is an official 1932 New York State Department of Education Commemorative Plaque, that tin Indian is meant to be a “Chief of the Seneca Nation, and a Friend of the Revolution.”
“Seneca” is kind of a big deal in this part of the world. It seemed odd that I’d never heard of this chief, Gu-Ya-No-Ga.
During colonial days, the Iroquois Confederacy was the most powerful alliance of natives in the northeast, feared and courted by the Dutch, English, and French. In 1776, the Seneca tribe was the largest in the alliance, in fact, larger that all the others (Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora ) combined.
Famous leaders included Cornplanter and Red Jacket, who fought with the British during the Revolution, and then negotiated with George Washington afterwards. And Half King, who helped George kick off the Seven Years’ War by ambushing some French-Canadian soldiers. Col. Ely Parker, General Grant’s wartime aide and later Commissioner of Indian Affairs, was also a Seneca sachem.
After the Revolution, the tribe was eventually pushed onto reservations in the western part of the state, and fragments ended up in Oklahoma and Canada. But the name still plasters the area. Town of Seneca, County of Seneca, Seneca Falls, Seneca Lake, Seneca Castle, Seneca Army Depot, Seneca Mills, Seneca Point, Seneca Foods Corp, and innumerable streets.
For many decades, “Seneca Chief” was the brand name for the most popular sweet corn in the region. One of the largest razor and cutlery manufacturers in the world was once in Geneva, NY, and many of their old “cutthroat” straight razors were stamped with “Seneca Chief” and an (inaccurate) image of a Native American.
And the first packet boat to travel the length of the Erie Canal, in 1825, with bands playing and cannons firing, was the Seneca Chief. (A replica boat is now being built in Buffalo.)
The name wasn’t always so popular in some circles. For European settlers, during the colonial times, it was loaded with menace. All during the Revolution, Seneca warriors terrorized the borderland towns of New York and Pennsylvania, a long ordeal of mostly-forgotten skirmishes, raids, ambushes, and massacres.
So anyway, this memorial to Gu-Ya-No-Ga puzzled me – – a leader of a tribe that fought a bitter and bloody war against the colonists, who somehow was a “friend of the Revolution,” and then somehow, forgotten.
Were they thinking of Gu-Ya-Su-Ta (aka Guisuta, Kayasota, etc. ) who guided Washington to a meeting with the French, in 1753, just before war broke out? But during the Revolution, that chief fought against the colonists, as did most of the Iroquois.
(The Oneida and Tuscarora tribes were the exceptions, and provided the rebels with scouts, guides, messengers, and warriors, even aiding the 1779 Sullivan Campaign, when Washington sent an army through this region on a scorched-earth mission, burning Iroquois villages, crops, orchards, and food supplies.)
The Iroquois were often given more that one name during their lifetime, and these names were often mangled by translations through French-to-Dutch-to-English, etc.. Others are known by nicknames applied by the colonists, which also might have variations, so it’s easy to get confused.*
But I’d read a lot about the Iroquois, as an undergrad history major, writing my senior project about them. And it surprised me that I’d never heard of this particular chief, who broke with his people to aid the revolutionaries. And the first description, when I googled him, claimed he was a close personal friend of Geo. Washington! How could I have read so many books and period documents, and missed this guy??
Well, here’s a clue. The old house in back of the monument, was once a tavern.
And as one version tells it, one night in the 1880’s, the locals were drinking hard cider, and made the whole thing up. As you likely have guessed by now, there was no such Seneca chief.
But in 1910, hundreds gathered to see this goofy monument go up. Were they all in on the joke, or had they started to believe the story? Another twenty-two years goes by, and the state education department puts up an official plaque, further legitimizing the tale. How a bunch of back-of-beyond farmers managed all this, I have no idea, but they’re kind of my heroes.
If you do a search, there’s several article about the hoax online, I think this one may be the best:
This state has always produced and attracted all kinds of hoaxes, jokesters and con men. At the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, you can still see the “Cardiff Giant,” a ten-foot-tall fossilized man, dug up by a farmer, south of Syracuse.
Which is where his cousin had buried it, a year earlier, after having a stonecarver create it. (There was a copycat “Taughannock Giant” which they dragged up to Cornell to study.)
P.T. Barnum (“There’s a sucker born every minute”) was a Connecticut Yankee, but he knew just where to open his museum/circus/menagerie – – NYC, right on Broadway. Where he displayed the “Fiji Mermaid” (in reality, a hideous mashup of taxidermied monkey and fish), an old lady posing as George Washington’s 161-year-old nanny and other con jobs.
Farther back in time, 1823, in the midst of an epidemic/depression, a couple of guys hired some fife & drum bands, and organized a parade of 1,000 workers, who paraded up Manhattan, with shovels, picks, saws, etc. for an emergency, massive operation. The workers had been persuaded, by a stirring speech and a barrel of whiskey, that to save their city from sinking, they needed to cut the island in half, and anchor it with massive iron chains.
Except…the story, which I’ve seen mentioned in a number of books and magazine articles, is itself baloney, and never happened.
I suppose Washington Irving qualifies as a hoax-ster for his Knickerbocker “history” of early New York, but it’s harmless, good fun, has some real history blended in, and is a wonderful and charming piece of writing.
More recently, in the 1980’s, George Plimpton wrote a Sports Illustrated article, and eventually a book, about Hayden Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch, who studied yoga in Tibet, played French horn, and pitched 168 MPH fastballs for the Mets.
New York has also produced some less charming cons, like Bernie Madoff and Clifford Irving (who not only wrote a fake bio of Howard Hughes, but after he got out of jail, had the brass to peddle another book about his deception, The Hoax.) And what’s-his-name, who left NYC for Washington, always tweeting gibberish from his bathroom.
In the old days, sometimes it took a cast-iron plaque, bronze statue, or carved stone tablet to create a persuasive myth. And those were simple country folk, pre-Internet. Apparently, all us modern-day sophisticates can be cozened & bamboozled with something as ephemeral as a tweet — a tissue, or rather, toilet paper of lies.
So…this little monument. Misinformation? Propaganda? Thou shalt not bear false witness, etc.? Let us ponder this, deeply.
Nah. This is Upstate New York, and it’s November – – so chill out. I guess some people might find this folk art/fake memorial, to be offensive and disrespectful, but personally, I’m filing Gu-Ya-No-Ga under the “mostly harmless, and kinda funny” category. It’s really not about Native Americans at all, it’s about some rural types, indulging in a bit of storytelling, maybe putting one over on the local newspaper editor. And the story, and strange little monument, have been hanging around long enough, they’re historical items in their own right.
I’m going to write more about these blue history markers, which are getting to be antiques themselves, that’ll be my next post. So far, scanning through hundreds of them online, the Go-Ya-No-Ga plaque is the only one I’ve found, that is simply baloney-on-a-stick.
This illustration is from “The Pilgrims’ Party” (1931), one of a series of histories for children by Sadyebeth and Anson Lowitz.
More of a fable, a bubbe-meise (grandmother’s tale) than real history. The sanitized Disney/Hallmark version of Thanksgiving may stick in your craw, but perhaps it’s a way to get kids interested in history, and real Native Americans, maybe not such a bad place to begin telling the more complex tale, about the reality of what happened between the Puritans and Wampanoags.
Well, like Squanto in the children’s book, it’s time to go prepare the traditional holiday pop corn, or parched maize. Maybe they didn’t really have popcorn at the first Thanksgiving, but Native Americans, including the Iroquois, did cultivate a number of varieties of corn, and some of it really was popped in heated clay vessels.
I’m feeling grateful, relieved, and thankful for quite a number of things, this Thanksgiving, and glad we have this holiday, cheers.
P.S. about complicated names:
- You’ll find George Washington’s affectionate nickname, “Town-Destroyer,” which is still used by the Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”) can be rendered as Conotocarius, Conotocaurious, Caunotaucarius, Conotocarious, Hanodaganears, and Hanadahguyus. If you search for these on the web, you’ll find history websites using all of those examples. And despite their centuries-old alliance, each Iroquoian tribe in NY had it’s own language, which also complicates things. (If you want to hear a bit of Onondaga, you could watch the children’s movie “The Indian in the Cupboard” (1995), when the character Little Bear is singing in that language.)
- There were quite a few leaders, from different tribes, called “Half King,” for example, not to be confused with “Half-Town,” who was Cornplanter’s brother. A chief called Tah-won-ne-ahs (or Tenh-Wen-Nyos, or Thaonawyuthe) was known to the colonists as Chainbreaker, or Governor Blacksnake. OK, you get the idea. Confusing.
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