Attempting to Repair the Past: An American Indian Longhouse Exhibit Coming to Amish Country

Tourists have long known Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County as Amish Country, but what was life like before the horse-and-buggy rides?

The answer will come this fall in the form of a permanent outdoor exhibit that will showcase the history and culture of American Indians and their influence on Central Pennsylvania during the colonial period.

“It is important to tell the story of Native Americans prior to the Herr family settling here,” said Becky Gochnauer, director of the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum. Hans Herr, a Mennonite, was a high-ranking religious leader who came to settle south of Lancaster in the 1700s.

The Museum, the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, the Circle Legacy Center and members of the local Native American community are collaborating to construct a replica of a Native American Longhouse—a large multi-family home made of logs, saplings and tree bark— that when completed is said to be one of the only interactive outdoor exhibits of Native life in the state and one of only a few similar buildings in the country.

The Longhouse Project is a big step in repairing relations between American Indians and early European settlers, and follows the honor and healing event held in October 2010 when church leaders and government officials apologized for the misunderstandings and abuse of American Indians three centuries ago.

Gochnauer said the construction of the projected $350,000 Longhouse structure is about to begin. “The big thing is the public kick off on April 28. We will be stripping the bark off of the saplings just like the Native People did centuries ago. We need 100 volunteers to strip the bark.”

Gochnauer said the ground breaking of The Longhouse Project on the grounds of the Museum is slated for May 5, and by fall its door will be open to welcome visitors to demonstrations, exhibits, curricula and tours.

The Longhouse is 20 ft high, 20 ft wide and 62 ft long. Gochnauer said the structure is based on historical and archeological research into Eastern Woodland Construction of the late 17th century.

It will tell the story of south-central Pennsylvania from the time American Indians lived in Lancaster in 1570 to the time the population disappeared in 1770. Pennsylvania is one of a few states with no official recognized tribes and no tribal reserve.

“Our goal here is we want to tell an honest and accurate story of what happened—the good and the bad,” said Gochnauer.

“We mourn for the acts done by our sisters and brothers in faith,” Presbyterian moderator Rev. Jane DeFord said in a press statement issued at the honor and healing event. “We ask that our native brothers and sisters forgive the wrongs done to them.”

The leaders recounted the friction between the Indians such as the infamous massacres of Conestoga Indians in Lancaster in 1763 and other offenses including encroaching on Native land, poaching game and imposing European cultural standards on Native Groups.

“The stories that we’ve heard this morning are very disturbing,” said Mitchell Bush of the Onondaga/Iroquois Confederacy in response to the apologies, “but let me tell you something about the Onondagas—we’re not raised to hate.”

Other than the Onondaga/Iroquois Confederacy, the Delaware/Lenape, Nanticoke, Shawnee, Susquehannock, Mohawk and Dakota/Lakota tribes in Montana represented the American Indians at the event.

Among the volunteers to The Longhouse Project is Uhma Ruth Py, who is part Lenape from her mother and father and who moved to Lancaster from Bucks County 20 years ago. Py said she is on the committee to furnish the Longhouse and has been involved in the project since the honor and healing.

“Native Culture is something I pursued all my life. From the time I was little I always thought that knowledge was meant to be shared, not kept to oneself,” she said, adding that she has been speaking to school groups and teaching the Native American culture.

Py, married to a Navy man and whose family has been assimilated with white culture, said that The Longhouse Project is significant to her. In all her travels she said this is the first time the two cultures have come together.

“We need to teach our children about how things are related back then and how they are related today,” she said.