Monday, November 26, 2012

Native American Heritage

By Marissa Gormel, Intern

When I first began my internship here at the Chemung Valley History Museum one of the first things I think that I shared with Erin (CVHM curator) was my Native American heritage, and my obvious pride in it. Before starting my internship I had visited the museum twice for school functions, and both times I had been drawn to the ‘Seneca’ section in the Bank Gallery. Although my family is from the Mohawk tribe, the Seneca and the Mohawk were both a part of the Iroquois Confederacy along with four other tribes, and any history discussing the Confederacy grabs my interest.  Because of this, when it came time for me to choose a topic for a 20 page paper for a class I took at Elmira College, I chose the Life of the Iroquois in New York State, Before and After Colonization. Armed with this knowledge and stories that my family has shared with me, I was really excited to see what CVHM had in its archives and collections that related to Native American’s.

While working on other projects in the museum, learning the in’s and out’s, every so often I would see some native objects, both in collections or in the exhibit, and I began to think back at the American Indian Museum in D.C., and about what I liked about how they displayed their artifacts, and what I didn’t like. My thoughts quickly lead me to remember learning about Natives in school, and what exactly we were told about them in our classes, and what I realized was how little the Natives on the east coast are talked about, in either schools or museums. The memories were easy to recall because ever since I can remember I have been proud of being a part of the Mohawk tribe. In second grade, in celebration of Thanksgiving, my peers and I were told the day before break we could dress up as either a Pilgrim or an Indian and we would ‘act out’ the first Thanksgiving and learn about why we still celebrate it. Of course I chose to be an Indian, there was no other option. In the fourth grade we were taught New York State history and we had to build a model of an Iroquois longhouse. That weekend at home my parents and I spent all of our time in the kitchen working on the model and playing Native music. After we presented our models to our classmates, our teacher taught us that the Iroquois, or SCOOM (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk (we never talked about the Tuscarora)) lived in New York and along the east coast, and they grew three major crops, but after that there wasn’t anything else we were taught, and I can clearly remember the disappointment that we weren’t being told more.

After middle school the only Natives we ever covered in history classes were the ‘Plains Indians’, discussing things like the Trail of Tears or the Battle of Bull Run, and even then I wondered why not the other tribes? The Natives on the east coast have an interesting history too! Eventually I let these feelings go as I entered college and began to concentrate on European history, rather than American, and it wasn’t until my D.C. visit that my concerns returned.

When a museum is small like CVHM I understand that they probably don’t have the resources to really expand certain exhibits like they want to, but at least they were able to share Chemung County’s history of having Seneca tribes as a part of their history. The larger museums are the ones that have me confused. There are two National Museums of the American Indian, one in Washington, D.C., the other in New York City. These institutions clearly have a lot of funding, a lot of support, and a lot of space so they are able to display a very wide range of their objects. 


During my visit to the D.C. museum I was in awe of how expansive their building was, of how the architecture was designed in a way to reflect the culture that was being displayed. Through its three levels the museum was able to separate the areas of the U.S. and then take the tribes from those areas and look at them at several angles: their belief system, what they ate, what they lived in, and how those things were affected by where they lived in the country. The entire time my friends and I walked through the museum I kept an eye out for the clear signs of the Iroquois: their language, their flag, a familiar name. Every so often there were hints of those things, like a beaded pin cushion made by a clan mother, or a headdress that identified the wearer as a Mohawk chief, but it was not until we went to the last level and walked into the 21st century exhibit did I find what I was looking for. This exhibit explained to the visitor what life was like for the tribes now. Pictures showed what their houses looked like, and newspapers talked about our yearly Pow Wow - a large festival with traditional dancing and pottery and an all-around cultural celebration. 

Though this did excite me, I was definitely let down. It was like middle and high school all over again. I wanted to see the history of my family. I wanted to learn more about how they lived and who they interacted with. These tribes had their own writing system, they lived in structures that look like houses that we have today and they even had their own democracy! Is it because of these facts that not many people find them worthy of deeper research? Does this make them not interesting enough for large museums to create exhibits around them? Isn’t their influence on the first Europeans enough to be taught in schools? Maybe I feel this way because the culture is so dear to me and I am very passionate about it, but I still believe that it is important for more of the history to be told.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Just in Time for Holiday Shopping!

The Gift Shop at the Chemung Valley History Museum is having a Special 25% off Sale!

Get 25% off these books:
The Flood of 72 Journal, August 1972  now $5.25
Chemung County…its History  now $11.25
The Chemung Valley  now $14.25
Around the Twin Tiers  now $9.75

And when you buy one of these books you will get 
another book free!
Choose from:
150: A Celebration of Chemung County’s Heritage
Steeples on the Landscape: The Architecture of the Houses of Worship in Chemung County
Our Sense of Place
A Century of Outdoor Life and Recreation in the Southern Tier, 1865-1965
German Heritage of the Chemung Valley

The Gift Shop has something for every reader 
on your shopping list!

  • You’ll find many great local history books like 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Elmira and Elmira Then and Now.   
  • Civil War buffs will enjoy Elmira: Death Camp of the North and Elmira in the Civil War: Training Camp of the Blue, Prison Camp of the Gray 
  • Even those who don’t think they like the Civil War era will love Dear Friend Amelia: The Civil War Letters of Private John Tidd. 
  •  The Gift Shop also carries children’s classics by Mark Twain including Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and The Prince and the Pauper as well as Mark Twain books for adults such as Wit and Wisecracks and Mark Twain in the USA.  
  • And for those who prefer watching history, you’ll find the documentaries Facing the Wall and 300 Miles to Freedom on DVD.

Shop the Gift Shop this holiday season Mondays through Saturdays 10:00am to 5:00pm or visit online anytime at

Become a member of the Chemung County Historical Society and enjoy a 10% discount in the Gift Shop all year long!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wait wait...don't deaccession!

By Erin Doane, Curator

I was delighted to hear Dr. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, on the November 3rd episode of Wait wait…don’t tell me! the weekly news quiz from NPR.  I always get a little excited when museums get airtime in the “real world.”  I enjoyed Peter Sagal’s interview of Dr. Clough and the game that followed (he won!) but one exchange got me thinking.

They were talking about having the puffy shirt from the tv show Seinfeld in the Smithsonian’s collection when this was said:
Peter Sagal: Have you ever thought of removing it when no one is looking?
Wayne Clough: Well, the word for it is called de-accessioning.
Sagal: De-accessing?
Clough: That’s what they call it.
Paula Poundstone: De-accessioning. That’s when you take something out in the dark of night, because it embarrasses you?
Clough: That’s correct.
[text taken from typed transcript of the show available at]

I know it was said in a tongue-in-cheek way for the sake of humor and I did laugh at first but it also set off some alarm bells in my head.  I have dealt with contentious deaccessioning before. There can be a lot of misunderstanding of the process and that can create tension and resentment in the community.  I have explained to several different, angry people that no, we are not going to just throw out your grandmother’s wedding gown and, unfortunately, no, you cannot have it back to prevent such a thing from ever happening.

 So, at the risk of being labeled a kill-joy, or whatever the hip kids are calling it these days, I find I have to explain what deaccessioning is really about.  Just to set the record straight, deaccessioning is not the process by which unwanted items are snuck out of a museum in the dark of night.  Deaccessioning is the thoughtful removal of an object from an institution’s permanent collection.  All museums have, or should have, a policy on deaccessioning which outlines why and how an object is deaccession.

The whys of deaccessioning are pretty straightforward.  An object may be removed from the collection if it does not fit the museum’s mission, if it is a duplicate of items already in the collection, if it is in poor condition and cannot be conserved or if it is dangerous/toxic.  The hows are equally simple.  The object can be offered to another museum where it is a better fit, it can be sold at public auction (all money made this way goes into a restricted fund to acquire more objects for the museum) or, if it is in poor shape or is dangerous, it can be disposed of.

Each object is reviewed on an individual basis.  Sometimes it is very easy to make a deaccessioning decision, sometimes it is more complicated and difficult, but there is always a process behind the decision that should ensure that the best is being done for both the institution and the object.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Chemung County Melting Pot: Native American Edition

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

It should come as a surprise to no one that the earliest settlers of Chemung County were Native Americans.  They left their mark in place names, arrowheads and pottery shards.  The people who settled this region were not a monolithic group.  They were different peoples from different parts of the northeast, they came in waves and they did not always get along.

Pre-contact, and for quite some time post-contact, the Haudenosaunee, whom we call the Iroquois, were the dominating force in what is now New York State and the Ohio River valley.  The Iroquois had a confederacy or league which originally included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations with the Tuscaroras joining in 1722.  There were other Iroquois-speaking peoples who were not part of the league.  Sometimes they got along, sometimes they didn’t.  All of these groups practice corn/beans/squash farming which supported larger populations than hunter-gatherer groups who lived around them. 

Prior to European contact, the Iroquois League was aggressive in their pursuit of better farmlands and hunting grounds throughout the northeast and mid-Atlantic region.  Their main enemies were the various Algonquian-speaking peoples.  In fact, the name Iroquois is actually a mispronounced bit of derogatory Algonquian slang meaning “killer people.”  By the time settlers were arriving in Jamestown, the Iroquois League had political dominance from the St. Lawrence River south to Virginia and actively controlled lands from the Hudson River valley west into Ohio.

So, how did that relate to Chemung County?  Some of the earliest Dutch maps of the area indicate that it was settled by an Iroquois-speaking group known as the Andaste.  During a trip in 1615, a young Frenchman Etienne BrulĂ© visited the area in hopes of finding allies against the Iroquois who were resisting French efforts to colonize New York.  He found 20 or so Andaste settlements along the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers.  The Andaste were, in fact, already fighting against the Seneca and, by the mid-1600s, had completely lost control of the land to the Seneca and their Cayugan allies.  The land was set aside for hunting with very few actual settlements.

Around the time of the French and Indian War (1755-1760), things began to change as the Chemung Valley became a refuge of sorts for several groups who had been forced off their lands by white settlers.  They were primarily Algonquin speakers and included the Mohegans, Shawnees and the Delawares.  The name “Chemung” is a Delaware word meaning “place of the big horn” after where they apparently discovered a mammoth tusk. 

These new settlers were understandably bitter and sided with the French during the war as well as several subsequent uprisings during the 1760s.  During this period the Chemung Valley became a major staging ground for attacks against white settlements in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  So, in 1764, the British prevailed upon their Iroquois allies, specifically the Mohawk and Oneida, to deal with the Delawares living in the valley.  An army 200 strong pushed through the area, burning settlements to the ground and driving their inhabitants west.  For the next decade, the valley would remain largely uninhabited until the Revolutionary War when it would once again be a staging ground for attacks on white settlers, this time by the Iroquois.