on July 20, 2013 - 11:15 PM
Robert J. D’Alimonte quit his corporate career designing websites to become a woodcarver, just as, years earlier, his Tuscarora grandfather left his construction company to carve art from bones.
Hilary Weaver has a doctorate in social work and a 20-year career at the University at Buffalo. A Lakota, she also sews the traditional clothing her children wear at powwows.
Zackery Cruz graduated from McKinley High School in June. Instead of heading to college right away, he will first learn about his family’s Seneca culture and language from friends and mentors on the Cattaraugus Reservation.
Brandon Martin saw how being able to speak French gave him a better understanding of the country when he lived in France. Now a resident of South Buffalo, he’s teaching Mohawk language classes, in which he and his students learn more about their own heritage.
And Joseph Michael Mahfoud is spending a couple of weeks in Nashville, playing the blues. He’ll be back home in Buffalo soon, playing gigs on reservations here and in Canada, where his Mohawk family has its roots.
None of them looks anything like Johnny Depp, blazing his way across movie screens this summer as a war-paint-wearing, crow-hatted Indian version of Jack Sparrow in “The Lone Ranger.”
With his wisecracking stoicism and awkward English, Depp’s Tonto is an over-the-top incarnation of what author and activist Andrea Smith called the “contrived, oft-romanticized anachronisms” that the general public may imagine American Indians to be – not the IT guys, college professors, blues guitarists or office workers living 21st century lives in the Buffalo area while trying to maintain and regain their Native traditions.
Jodi Lynn Maracle, a young Western New Yorker and native scholar, referenced Smith’s work at this year’s Storytelling Conference at UB, where she also made the point that the public tends to see Native Americans as nomadic tribes – not as the nations that they were and still are.
But when talking with members of the Haudenosaunee nations and other western tribes living in the Buffalo Niagara region – Census figures put the number at around 14,000 – they easily identify by their nation and clan, and they know exactly where they came from.
“The Haudenosaunee never surrendered,” D’Alimonte said. “We’re still here. And we’re not going anywhere.”
He and his family have stayed in the territory of their ancestors. Other Native Americans have made their way to more distant cities after their people were pushed onto reservations with few jobs and less hope for them.
Of the 6 million-plus Americans who claim Native ancestry today, more than 60 percent live off-reservation in cities and suburbs. Over the decades, many have married people from other ethnic groups – white, black, Hispanic. Their heritage has been both diluted and expanded.
D’Alimonte, for instance, got his last name from his father’s Italian ancestors and his Native blood from his Tuscarora mother.
“You can’t tell us by how we look, or by our names, or where we live,” said Michael Martin, executive director of Native American Community Services in Buffalo. He was talking about how difficult it can be to locate the urban residents his agency wants to serve and to get an accurate count of Western New York’s non-reservation Native American population.
Still, its outreach is significant.
Visiting there, one encounters young administrators in shirts and ties, ponytails hanging down their backs; elder women socializing and sharing their history with young people; people looking for help in their struggles with demons that have plagued their culture for decades – alcoholism, abuse and joblessness; and many who want to know more about their culture, which U.S. government policies for years tried to erase.
Janet D’Alimonte of Kenmore, Robert’s mother, now makes native crafts, like jewelry and dream catchers. She sells them at craft shows and through local shops.
“We were never exposed to our culture,” she said.
Her parents, from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario and the Tuscarora reservation, moved to Grand Island when she was a child and raised their children as a typical suburban family.
“My dad and mom were from a generation where you were not supposed to even speak the language,” she said.
One of her brothers, Russell Hill of Grand Island, worked for years with their father doing the steelwork that gained many native men the nickname “skywalkers” – and kept them far from the reservation.
“When we were all ironworkers, all that time we worked with guys from Six Nations, and we never talked about our culture,” Hill said. “It never came up.”
That changed about 40 years ago, when one of the Hill brothers died in an auto accident at age 19. The family grew closer; their father, Stan Hill, then 55, gave up ironwork and went on to become a noted aboriginal bone carver. One of his other two sons, Rick W. Hill Sr., earned a master’s degree at UB, and has worked for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and with Six Nations Polytechnic in Ohsweken, Ont.
It was a time when the American Indian Movement was gaining speed, and more people were awakening to the culture they had almost lost.
“We would even have our own controversies, arguing about history,” Hill said. “We would sit for hours, talking and arguing.”
As he gets older, Robert D’Alimonte says that his native heritage “becomes more important to me, but with all the policies they had to get us to go away, it’s hard.
“Every day we have to fight to maintain who we are – to exist in two worlds.”
Sometimes, that struggle requires making a choice.
Last month, D’Alimonte said goodbye to a 20-year tech career to devote himself full time to his craft business, Tuscarora WoodWorks. He plans to open his own shop soon, selling genuine Haudenosaunee artwork.
He also likes to talk with customers about the real history of his people, who are notoriously shortchanged in history books.
“It’s a couple of chapters, and then Columbus comes here and it became the United States,” D’Alimonte said. “While it seems there are a lot of people who are interested in knowing more, there’s also a lot of ignorance, a lot of stereotypes, a lot of racism.”
A work in progress
One place where Native American studies has found a welcoming home is the University at Buffalo.
That is where people like the late John Mohawk and Barry White, Senecas from the Turtle clan and nationally known scholars and activists, taught alongside famed Onondaga and Seneca faithkeeper Oren Lyons, who has represented indigenous people at the United Nations and is also in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Donald Grinde, who was active in the American Indian Movement for many years, now heads the Native Studies program, which is believed to have produced more Native American Ph.D.s than any other university east of the Mississippi.
Weaver has been teaching and doing research at UB since 1993, studying the effects of 100 years of forced relocation and “historical trauma” on Native people and families.
For many, rebuilding their lives remains a work in progress.
“We are reinventing Native life in a multicultural society. None of us are living in a vacuum,” said Weaver, who lives in Buffalo. “Almost all our lives are in a multicultural setting; it is rare to be in a situation with all Native people, where I don’t have to explain everything.”
Even with her education, solid family and meaningful employment, she encounters challenges in keeping up traditions.
“Speaking as a mom, as someone who wants to raise two strong, confident Native people, it’s difficult being a Native in the city – there’s not the access to the culture, the language,” Weaver said.
With a Seneca father and Lakota mother, the couple’s children, Wanblee, 10, and Iris, 12, already have their longhouse names – the ones used for ceremonies – and are veterans of many gatherings and powwows – made easier with reservations in Erie and Niagara counties and in Canada within short driving distance.
It is a huge change from when Weaver grew up, and especially since the time when her grandparents were children, and were sent from South Dakota to white-run boarding schools in Virginia.
The boarding schools were a government program to “kill the Indian, save the child,” and continued for more than 50 years.
“The children were expected to assimilate into white culture,” Weaver said. “Some children were kept there for years; some may have been given breaks, but then they were sent to live with white families who could support the skills they were being taught.”
The boarding school programs were shut down in the 1930s, but by the 1950s another government assimilation effort took their place – a relocation program to move Native Americans off their reservations into the cities.
“But there wasn’t much support when they got there,” Weaver said. “They didn’t have work or the correct job skills. You ended up with a lot of Native people moving to cities and feeling rather lost.”
The result was clusters of Native poverty that continue today.
In numbers too high to ignore, Native Americans – urban and rural – continue to experience instances of diabetes, cancer, sexual abuse and alcoholism at rates far greater than the general population – 50 percent higher for diabetes, almost double the rate for alcohol-related deaths, and so on.
With funding by the National Cancer Institute, Weaver recently examined three major risk factors for young Native Americans, and how those might be overcome. She titled her study “Healthy Living in Two Worlds.”
“First, we have really high rates of smoking – we start younger and don’t quit,” Weaver said. “Second, the rates of obesity are really high, due in part to the abundance of sugar and fat-filled ‘poor people’ food in our diets.
“Third, we have embraced a sedentary lifestyle. Our kids need to be more active.”
She created a five-week summer day camp for children ages 9 to 13 to teach them healthier habits; the question is whether those habits can be carried over to homes where the parents are having problems of their own.
“Suicide rates and the rate of violence in Native communities – particularly violence against women – are very disturbing,” Weaver said.
But it is clear the community is not in denial and is facing its problems pragmatically.
“There is an unexpected strength here. Coming from the West, I had the stereotype that the Native people here were assimilated,” Weaver said. “I find there is great pride here, and enclaves where the culture has been preserved – the ways of life, the culture, the language, even in the urban environment.”
Joseph Michael Mahfoud is among those who seem to have mastered more than one culture.
As it says on his website, he is “as comfortable … letting the blues rip your soul as playing a Bach Bouree.”
His family is from Six Nations in Canada, but he grew up in Riverside, surrounded by bands and immersed in music. He learned classical guitar first, but he said that the blues has a natural audience among native listeners.
“The blues is the general style of music that Indian people gravitate toward,” Mahfoud said. “BB King, Albert King, Freddie King – the three kings, those were the guys I was listening to.”
There’s a song that’s popular when he performs on the reservations, he said.
“I’m just a red man singing a black man’s song in a white man’s world.”
With degrees in music education and classical guitar from UB, Mahfoud has been teaching for years in area public schools. While working in the Lake Shore district, he had a lot of Native American students because of the proximity to the Cattaraugus reservation. Now in Buffalo’s Tapestry Charter School, his students are mostly African-American.
“The historical issues, the cultural genocide – they are dealing with much the same things,” he said. “It’s a challenging community, they are very complex. The black community, much like the Native American one, is very mistrustful of schools and the government.”
But he remembers a woman, Fran Hill, who was a Native American teacher, and who helped him all the while he was growing up to understand his culture. He tries to carry that on.
“We learn to recognize our own, and to pull them along,” he said.
Learning the language
Brandon Martin, who lived in Rochester while growing up, also has Mohawk roots in the Six Nations Reserve, and visited there often to keep family connections strong.
He earned his doctorate at UB this spring, having already received degrees in Native American studies and French.
“The whole reason I went to school was for Native Studies,” Martin said. “I tried to use education to learn more about myself.”
That extended in recent years to studying Mohawk at Six Nations, since all traditional ceremonies are conducted in Native languages. Being a Mohawk himself does not make the melodic language any easier to learn, he said.
“Whenever you’re learning a foreign language, it’s really hard on your ego,” he said, with a small smile. “You’re going to be wrong, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Nevertheless, it is worth it, he said.
“It makes one think differently about what is being said when it is Native. Whatever you’re trying to stress goes first,” Martin said. “You can say one word – it might be six or seven syllables – and have it be a sentence.”
Some of the Haudenosaunee languages are more vital than others.
Rosetta Stone has a Mohawk version, while the Tuscarora language has few completely fluent speakers.
“The U.S. government made a determined effort to eradicate the Native ways and language,” Martin said. “We need an equally determined effort to reintroduce the language.”
The next generation
Zackery Cruz wants to be part of that effort.
A June graduate of McKinley High School, he goes back to the Cattaraugus reservation where his mother grew up whenever he can to learn about Seneca culture the old way – by listening.
“Our language – not many people know it,” Cruz said. “The person I’m learning from says, to learn this language, you have to forget everything you know about English.”
His education extends beyond language to understanding the Seneca way of life, a philosophy he brings home with him. “In our culture there’s no such thing as ‘the best’ or ‘the greatest.’ It’s not a competition,” Cruz said. “People bring their talents and skills together to help others learn and do things; it makes the whole group stronger.”
Cruz’s father’s family came from Puerto Rico; his mother is a Seneca. Confident and modest at the same time, he says they taught him not to be afraid of who you are or what you are.
Now, his parents are encouraging him to find out more about his Native heritage.
“I’m learning this for future generations,” he said. “I’m doing it because I want to teach my children, and my grandchildren.”