Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Native American Music and Dance Festival

Saturday July 23, 2016                                                                       Most Recent Posts:
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I’ve already done a post on our initial visit to Gonondagon.  I covered its history and cultural significance in that post which you can find here if you missed it.   It is a wonderful place and we highly recommend it.   We liked it so well, that we return today for their Dance and Music Festival which has some aspects of a Pow Wow but isn’t one.

The festival is held on the grounds of the Seneca Art and Culture Center and runs for a two day week-end in late July.  It is a celebration of both traditional and contemporary Native American culture. 



The tribe has quite a festival planned with something for everyone and lots of family activities.  Admission to the Center is included in your festival ticket.  There is a Native American arts market and foods, traditional storytelling, Master Artisan demonstrations, guided tours and hikes and what they call the Family Discovery Tent which has educational activities for children and adults as well as information about some central item in Seneca Culture.  This year it is the Wampum Belt.

With so many things going on simultaneously, you have to choose how to spend your time.  Selecting one thing may prohibit another.  Because we take a hike this morning, we miss the traditional Basket Making demonstration.  Because we choose to watch the Iroquois Social Dancing, we miss the traditional Pottery Demonstration.  And those are just two examples.

We arrive early, just after the festival opens at 10am.  We have a chance to get acquainted with the grounds which are set up above the center and to one side in a large field looked over by their Tree of Peace which is always a white pine.  Tradition says that it was under a white pine that the 5 tribes buried their weapons to live under the Law of Peace which still governs their confederacy.



After looking around, we meet our fellow hikers under the Tree of Peace and head up to the Long House where the trail begins just beyond it.




The trail we hike is named The Mother Earth Trail.  Our guide shows us all the plants provided to the people by Mother Earth and explains the many uses they made of each.    In the forest there was sassafras and black cherry among others.



In the marsh there was cattail and willow.   Like the deer, the cat tail was completely used, every single part.  It was a very interesting story and we learned a great deal.



The trail brings us back to the Long House where we go inside for a tour.  Those who read my post about our first visit to Gonondagon will remember that we had a tour here that day with some Native students who had come to experience their heritage.   This time the guide is talking more to those who know nothing.   I didn’t talk much about our first tour so I’ll pass along some of what we learned on this one.




An entry way with double doors for the cold New York winters.



The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) are made up of 6 Nations of which the Seneca are one.  The Seneca are made up of 8 clans.  A long house would be the home of one clan or part of one clan depending on clan size. 

The matriarch, her husband, children and the entire families of her married daughters would all live in a single long house. From 30 to 50 people.   Men must marry out of their clan and join their wives’ clans.  Children were members of their mother’s clan.  Thus gene pool was kept diverse.  

Notice the opening in the roof.  There is a long pole which can pull bark “tiles” over it in case of rain or snow.  Notice the pot which is sitting on an indoor fire.  There is one at each end of the long house for cooking and warmth in the winter.




One female’s famly would share one section of the lower bunk for sleeping and keep their goods above.  So perhaps one would be for Gramma and Grampa, another for the married daughter, her husband and her children although we were told that the little ones often would just go crawl in with Gramma and Grampa in the night.







After the tour we head back toward the festival grounds to the big tent, on the right in the picture below, for the Iroquois Social Dancing.




We are a little bit early and I am able to get some candid shots of the young dancers and of Peter Jemison, an 8th generation descendent of Mary Jemison and a member of the Heron Clan/Seneca Nation who is the master of ceremonies or whatever he is called here.


The elders are sharing a laugh.  I don’t know a lot about any of them other than Peter Jemison on the right, who in addition to being the elder from the  host group,  is the Historic Site Manager of Gonondagon and was a major factor in it being built.  He is also a respected artist and member of a number of state and national Native American adivsory committees to governments. 

After the dancing I learn that the man in the middle is 80 years old which totally shocked me when he mentioned it.  I thought he was perhaps in his early 60’s.   The man on the left is Bill Crouse a member of the Hawk Clan/Seneca Nation.  He is the leader of a Seneca dance group called Allegany River Dancers and has brought some of his dancers here from their Resesrvation in Salamanca, New York south of here near Allegany State Park where we were earlier this summer.  Sure wish we had stopped at their reservation museum and been there for their early July Pow Wow.




Bill Crouse introduces the dancing.  He explains that what they will do today is entitled social dancing and is for fun and fellowship.  They do not do ceremonial dancing for the public.




Throughout the dancing, the youger girls attempt to keep little brother in line.  He joins in, or not, as he pleases.  He’s too cute!




The dances take placed on a raised stage so that everyone can clearly see.  We’ve never seen this done before since most of the dancing we have seen is part of a Pow Wow and takes place in a circular arena outside.  But today with the afternoon sun beating down. the giant tents providing shade are very welcome.  There is a cool breeze which makes it very comfortable although I would think the dancers are warm in their Native attire.




Some songs are from the men, some from the women.





The young men dance together.



Then the older men dance.  This was when observing them I thought the 80 year old was the same age as the others.





Isn’t this a wonderful face?




At one point the singers sing a friendship song and the dancers come down from the stage into the audience and pick up people to dance with them in a line that snakes around and outside.  At a Pow Wow a friendship dance is usually a round dance.




After the Seneca Social Dancing is finished we walk over to see the artist booths.



All of the vendors appear to be Native American.  This potter has Haudenosaunee symbols on many of the plates for sale and shallow bowls that appear to be woven.  I’ll have to ask my pottery friend Maggie how they do that.





There are Native American flutes for sale.




Buck skin clothing is also for sale.





In some cases we can watch the artists working.



We admire the skills and the artistry but have long ago given up bringing anything home with us.   The last booths we come to are selling food.  We definitely did not bring our lunches so that we could eat here.  



One of the symbols of the original Haudenosaunee Confederacy is displayed on purple flags flying above many of the tents and on the apron of the Native American woman fixing my Indian Taco.



Don’t let Caldwell Esselstyn read this post.   That’s FRY bread, with beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream.  More fat than I eat in months usually but it sure tastes good.  David opts for Elk Sausage and sweet potato fries.   This should keep us going for the rest of the afternoon.



After lunch, we return to the main tent to watch the Zuni Olla Maidens who have flown in from New Mexico to be the featured dancers today.   They were formed more than 90 years ago.  There are 5 women, 2 singers and 3 dancers, all dressed in colorful matching regalia and donning Zuni silver and turquoise jewelry. Yes they are dancing with clay pots balanced on their heads and flowers in their hands. The pots known as Olla in Zuni reflect Zuni pottery-making tradition going back more than a thousand years.  They tell us their performances both honor and promote the beauty and culture of Zuni women who traditionally transported water in large Ollas carried on their heads.



I’ve had to lighten these pictures in order for their traditional dresses not to be too dark due to the bright light coming in the windows of the tent.






In addition to dancing, they sing and play traditional wood percussion instruments. Notice all the turquoise jewelry around their necks, on their wrists and hands.





They too called a friendship dance and asked the audience to come up and dance with them in the round.  Their dance took us in a circle while we raised our hands and then dropped hands and turned around.   It was fun watching all the non natives try to get the hang of it.   Thanks David for this picture.



At the end they posed so everyone could get a picture of them all together.  I wish they had done it against a blank wall.


From there we go into the Family Tent and watch Richard Hammell making authenic wampum belts.  Wampum is a string of white and dark purple shell beads.  Both wampum and wampum belts were contact period innovations.  By the middle of the 17th century the exchange of wampum belts and strings characterized agreements and treaties made between Native Americans and Euroamericans.




We learn that the use of shell beads in Eastern North America, whether made of freshwater or saltwater shell species, has a lengthy history going back at least 4500 years.  Shell beads were essential to ceremonial and cultural practices probably because of their association with water and its life-giving properties and because of their visual appeal.   For East Coasters the purple comes from the quahog clam.




The size and shape of white marine shell beads are a clue to when the beads were made.  The length of the beads was restricted due to the difficulty in drilling the holes.  Early in the 17th Century wampum had an intrinsic value of two white wampum beads to one purple bead.  Wampum values had to be continually referenced to the exchange rate of European currency.  By October 1650 that rate was eight white wampum or four purple wampum to the penny.  The stories of counterfit wampum and the white guys making great profits are interesting. 




To Native Americans then and now, wampum continues to symbolize authenticity and authority of the messages “read into” wampum belts and strings used in political and religious councils.



The specific Hiawatha belt (Ayonwatha) is a national belt of the Haudenosaunee. The belt is named after Hiawatha, the Peacemaker’s helper. In this belt, it records when 5 nations; the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, buried their weapons of war to live in peace. Each square represents a nation and the line connects each nation in peace.   This belt was made when the Haudenosaunee Confederation was formed before the first Europeans came to what the Haudenosaunee refer to as Turtle Island.

It is this wampum belt that I mentioned as being on the flags above the tents and the aprons of the food vendor from which we bought our lunch.  It is a powerful symbol for these people.

Hiawatha belt


Richard Hammel has recreated hundreds of wampum belts from original designs, drawings and photographs.  They are all authentically made and strung on buckskin.





Some additional cultural information I learned in the family tent is that the Seneca Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy consists of eight very large families called clans.  The clans are divided into two halves, or Fires:  The Animal and the Bird.  Since very ancient times, upon the death of a loved one, one Fire attends to necessary daily affairs while the other mourns.

The turtle, wolf, bear and beaver compose the Animal clans.  The Hawk, Heron, Snipe and Deer compose the bird Clans.  Not sure why the deer is in the bird clans. 

Clan animals have characteristics which the Seneca admire.  The clans are the foundation of the Haudenosaunee for the Confederate Chiefs are chosen by the Clan Mothers.

Women in the clans might wear bone hair combs such as these showing the Bird Clans on the left and the Animal Clans on the right.   The symbolism in the lives and activities of the Native Americans gives their lives meaning in ways that Euroamericans seem to lack.






We return to the big tent for the final music which is contemporary Native American singer/songwriter Darryl Tonemah (Tuscarora).  Native Peoples want us to see them not only carrying on their traditions but moving in contemporary society as well.  Darryl calls his music Native Americana as it combines “the energy of rock, the intelligence of folk and the heart of country.”   He has released six albums and has performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of the American Indian, the New Orleans Jazz Festival to name a few.

All of the events in the big tent, including the storytelling which we didn’t fit into our schedule are signed for the hearing impaired by students and faculty of the nearby Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.  It is wonderful watching them gracefully and beautifully interpret with their hands what is being said.




Darry Tonemah’s songs and stories bring smiles to the faces of the listeners.



It was a big day for us and for the Seneca Nation.  It is clear that a lot of  painstaking work and planning went into this week-end.   The program repeats tomorrow and happens around the 3rd week-end in July every year.  This is its 25th year and the first with the Art and Culture Center fully open.   If you are in the area, we can’t recommend both the Center and the Festival highly enough.



  1. We usually have honey or sugar on our local fry bread. Looks like a fun time.

  2. What a grand day! I love seeing more of the Longhouse and how they lived so efficiently. Good to see the dancers in lighter shirts and shirtless - the Pow Wow regalia worn in SoCal is very heavy and very hot. Great pic of the elder. Fry Bread is definitely one of my weaknesses.....only one. Thank you for all the clan information, I so enjoy learning about different clans and traditions. The wampum belts are beautiful :-)))

  3. What a wonderful day. Love the smile on your face doing the Friendship dance:o)) With your love of everything Native American, you sure found an amazing experience!!!

  4. The Long House particularly impresses me.

  5. Pretty cool! Love the beadwork. I really enjoy Native American dancing and singing too.

  6. What an amazing day! I would love all of this—the longhouse, the dances, the artwork, and the culture. We've been to Native American celebrations and dances in the Southwest, but not yet in the East. This is one we're definitely putting on our list. I'm glad you included something about the appreciation of contemporary Native American traditions—it's so important for us to not be stuck in stereotypes.

  7. What a terrific day you had, and looked like you enjoyed yourself in the friendship dance. I liked Zuni Olla Maidens traditional dresses they looked sophisticated. We have a similar dance in my country, where dancers have to dance with a lighted candle on their heads and hands.
    Thanks for taking me to a Native American festival, we missed a Pow Wow by a day in Cody, WY.

  8. That is incredible, the man is still dancing at age 80! Good for him.

    I couldn't dance when I was 20 (and still can't). ;c)

  9. I know you enjoyed this! Those wampum belts are so ornate. I can't imagine trying to make beads out of shells. I wonder what tools they used for that? The fry bread meal you had looked yummy and, no, I won't write to Dr. Esselstyn and tattle about it. David's meal, not so much.... Never mind the elk sausage but I really do not like sweet potato fries that everyone else raves about. Yuck! xxxooo

  10. A wonderful celebration. I am drooling over the Zuni jewelry of course.

  11. I have always thought the Zuni jewelry was the most beautiful of all.

  12. I really enjoyed getting a better insight into the lifestyle and society of a totally different culture that developed independent of the European culture from which I came. What a huge difference a few fundamental differences in beliefs makes. Enjoyed every minute & would gladly repeat.

  13. So different the cultural experience than a traditional powwow. Great pics to highlight the event!

  14. Another wonderful day! Neat to learn about their ways and see some of their native talents. Great pictures..I love the candids. Dancing at 80 and looking great...may we all hope for that!


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